Questions about COVID-19 dominated the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Special Superintendents’ Webcast on June 16.

Dr. Connie Gayle White, deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health, stressed the importance of social distancing and face masks when schools reopen this fall.

“Some people may go through this illness and never have a symptom at all,” she said. Twenty to 40 percent of those infected with COVID-19 show no symptoms, making asymptomatic people the highest risk for transmission of the virus, White said.

The best defense is to stay at least 6 feet away from everyone else, White said. If that’s not possible, the next best is a cloth face mask to prevent those infected from spreading droplets when they talk, laugh, cough or sneeze, she said.

“The face masks prevent me from infecting you,” White said. Cleaning surfaces where droplets may land and regularly washing hands are important, too.

She said it also will be vital for schools to maintain bus manifests and classroom and cafeteria seating charts to help with contact tracing if a student or teacher is diagnosed with COVID-19.

Health departments have used contact tracing for decades to isolate people exposed to other diseases. Health workers ask the infected who they have been in frequent contact with and seek to quarantine those people.

If a community member is diagnosed with COVID-19, the local health department will contact area schools for any needed contact tracing, White said. Schools themselves won’t be responsible for identifying cases but do need to keep careful documentation of student movement and contacts.

Future closing standards

KDE released new guidance June 15 on intermittent school closings, drawing distinctions between short-term closures of one or two days, mid-term closures of three to 10 days, and long-term closures of 11 days or more, said David Cook, KDE’s director of innovation and coordinator of its Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) Program.

Some elements are common to all three closure types, but others will be tailored to length.

For maximum flexibility, teachers need to design instruction to be “digitally agnostic,” deliverable by in-person instruction or through any level of technological devices, Cook said.

Cook said students should take home district-issued devices and textbooks every night, just in case. How schoolwork submission and student participation are handled will vary by length of closure, as will food service, with longer-term closures requiring more NTI and feeding plans like those used in spring 2020, he said.

Interim Education Commissioner Kevin C. Brown said Gov. Andy Beshear was asked about school closings on June 15, and Beshear said that with increased contact tracing, future closures may become more precise: targeting individual schools or even classes that have been exposed to COVID-19 rather than shutting down entire districts.

If an athlete tests positive for COVID-19, whether the whole team must isolate for 14 days will depend on whether the sport involves close contact, White said.

Brown, repeating a superintendent’s question, asked DPH officials if schools have any flexibility in how many students will be put in each classroom — perhaps 20 instead of 15.

White said there is some, but if students are closer to each other than 6 feet, they need to be wearing masks. If they’re 6 feet apart and stationary, she said masks can come down.

Counting changes, budget impacts

Plans for school attendance and funding remain in flux, and those goals should be flexible, said Associate Commissioner Robin Kinney of KDE’s Office of Finance and Operations. They may even change during the school year as models for instruction quickly shift between in-person, remote learning or some hybrid, she said.

A major issue is verifying attendance and participation when students may or may not be at their desks, Kinney said. Since funding is based on attendance, the way students are counted may need to be modified.

Transportation is likely to remain a big expense, because schools may need to run the same bus routes even if only half of students physically attend classes, Kinney said.

Brown said the department is gathering and considering feedback on attendance, transportation and related costs.

“I want you all to understand that we intend to give you some decision points going forward in the next few days and weeks,” he told superintendents.

Brown said he’s willing to call the state board of education into session for any needed changes it can authorize, but many actions would probably need approval from Gov. Beshear, Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, or — ultimately — state legislators.

“My view is we don’t want to make policy decisions that need the General Assembly,” he said.

Meetings and surveys

Superintendents also were asking many questions about revised guidance on group gatherings, such as in-person school board meetings. Gatherings need to follow the governor’s Healthy at Work guidelines on numbers, social distancing and masks, said Associate Commissioner Kelly Foster with KDE’s Office of Continuous Improvement and Support.

Brown said that perhaps board members and a few staff could meet fairly soon, but local school boards would need to advertise how the public could watch meetings instead of attending in person.

Surveys on needs resulting from COVID-19 went out this week to teachers, schools, districts and families. The data will be used in deciding the next steps toward reopening schools, and will be valuable for Kentucky’s incoming education commissioner, Brown said.

Many responses have been received — 37,000 from Kentucky families, according to Brown — but officials urged everyone eligible to complete and return the survey, which takes 10 to 15 minutes. Surveys for principals and a Spanish version for families went out Tuesday.

Expense Reimbursement

Although some schools have already gotten COVID-19-related funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, they and other schools may be eligible for reimbursement through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said Tracy Doyle from Kentucky Emergency Management.

Expenses related to COVID-19 preparations, response and recovery are eligible from Jan. 20, 2020, onward, she said. Expenses already paid for by CARES funding can’t be reimbursed by FEMA.

The key is carefully identifying and documenting each expense as COVID-19-related, Doyle said.

Communication-related expenses — talking to families, posting signs, holding training sessions — are all reimbursable and are likely to be a big expense, she said. So is anything used to reconfigure schools to meet social distancing guidelines. The cost of hiring cleaners for disinfection or school-bus monitors to check temperatures also is reimbursable. if regular employees do those jobs, only overtime costs can be reimbursed. If temporary workers are used for disinfection or as school bus monitors, the whole expense is eligible, Doyle said.

The first step is applying for public assistance to FEMA.

“If you never become an applicant, that’s no problem,” Doyle said. But if districts don’t apply, they won’t be eligible for such reimbursement later, even if eligible expenses arise, she said.

Program delivery managers will be assigned to help school districts identify eligible costs and the needed documentation, Doyle said.

“I would most adamantly advise you to document all your expenditures,” she said. Any COVID-19-related expense should have a statement identifying it as such added to the purchase order, as that will save time when the application is reviewed, Doyle said.

The federal government will cover 75 percent of eligible costs, with the state paying another 12 percent, meaning local districts would bear only 13 percent of COVID-19-related expenses, she said.

Even private groups with educational roles may be eligible, but won’t know if they qualify unless they apply, Doyle said.

Some districts reported getting emails, allegedly from FEMA, saying if they don’t log into an account their applications will be deleted. Those are probably phishing emails, Doyle said. If school officials get such threats or requests for personal data, she said they should contact her at, Tracy.doyle@ky-em.org.

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