By Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
The Carter County School Board has made some adjustments to their original planned start date, but it isn’t the push back to late August that some parents and faculty feel the board should be considering. The board voted four to one to approve a recommendation from Superintendent Dr. Ronnie Dotson to push the start date for pupils back to Monday, August 10 instead of the original recommended date of Thursday, August 6. Teachers will still be expected to report back to school on August 3, as the original plan indicated. Otherwise the calendar for the school year will not be changed. Dotson said he brought this option to the board because it would allow teachers two more work days to prepare instructional packets and plans for students whose parents choose a non-traditional instruction (NTI) option instead of a return to a traditional classroom.
Dotson also explained to the board that while this cuts the number of school days for students from 175 to 173, it is still more than the 170 instructional days the state requires districts to meet unless they choose the option to start back August 26. Districts choosing that method have to meet a set number of instructional hours instead of a set number of days.
While parents participating in the meeting through an online portal and in person continued to express concerns about the planned start date, Dotson said he and the board are in constant communication with both local and state health departments, and state education officials, to learn and follow steps, “to keep employees and students as safe as possible.” While he said the district would follow whatever plan the board decided on, he said the health officials the district had consulted with had told him they couldn’t think of any safety measures the district could have in place by August 26 that they could not have in place by the first of the month. He also said that he didn’t know that anyone’s personal situations would change significantly within those 20 days.
“Some things we will have to figure out along the way,” Dotson conceded. “We always do.”
He said the district is also looking at new activities and techniques teachers can use to allow students to interact and work together on projects while still maintaining responsible social distancing.
District 5 board member Kirk Wilburn, voting via teleconference, was the lone “no,” vote on the decision to change the start date from August 6 to August 10. Board members Rachel Fankell, district 1, Bryan Greenhill, district 2, Lisa Easterling, district 3, and William Bradley, district 4, voted in favor of the measure. Wilburn also asked to have the meeting minutes for the previous meeting amended to show that he voted against the original measure to return to school on August 6 as well. The minutes originally showed that the vote for the August 6 date was unanimous.
Mitzie Heaberlin, with the Prichard School site based decision making council, was in attendance at the meeting and addressed the board with a number of concerns she, other parents, and teachers shared about the planned start date. Heaberlin said she and others worried that, with the small size of classrooms at Prichard, it would be difficult to impossible to maintain appropriate social distancing. She also asked the board to consider other options beyond the in-person education and NTI choices currently being offered to parents. Heaberlin said that while some students did need to be in a classroom every day, for various reasons, it was not necessary for all. She asked the district if they would consider staggering attendance days, so that some students could report to school every other day, or other options. She also expressed concerns about the schools HVAC ventilation system, and requested the school conduct a “culture and climate” survey so that staff and parents could respond anonymously to share their feelings about the start date and other issues. That survey could be conducted at no cost to the district through the Kentucky Educational Development Corporation, she said. She noted that the district has lost many teachers, and read off the names of a few of them.
“Why did they give up… to go somewhere else?,” she asked.
She said there are issues at Prichard, and elsewhere in the district “that need to be addressed.”
Dotson told Heaberlin that Prichard – along with each other school in the district – has a school reopening committee. He said he had recently gone to Prichard and walked the classrooms with principal Jason McGlone, and had determined they could responsibly put 17 to 20 students per classroom while maintaining proper distancing. Dotson said if only 40 percent of parents chose an immediate return to the traditional classroom space, as numbers seemed to indicate, he didn’t feel there would be any problems with maintaining that class size. He said the district was also looking at using other spaces in the school, such as the gym or library, to maintain distance between students. Dotson also encouraged Heaberlin, and other parents, to direct their questions or concerns about their school’s start date or plan to the principals of each building.
But, he added, many of the decisions were not in the hands of the individual schools or the district. For instance, he said, it wasn’t up to the school district or the individual schools if they took student temperatures as they boarded school buses, or if the buses were sanitized each day.
“We have to do… exactly what they Kentucky Department of Health requires,” Dotson said. “We’re told what we have to do.”
The only leeway, he explained, was that the principal of each school could decide how they would meet those guidelines.
Heaberlin had also told the board that some teachers and parents didn’t feel as if their concerns were being heard, but Fankell said even if they were not happy with the decisions the board made, their concerns were heard.
“We have to make decisions based on what is good for the whole county,” Fankell said. “(But) teachers and and parents always have a voice.”
Greenhill noted that “recommendations are changing daily,” and that the governor could change what the district had planned at any time, but that there was no way to make everyone happy.
“I feel like the referee at a basketball game,” he said. “No matter what I do, half the gym is going to hate me and half the gym is going to hug me.”
Director of Maintenance Ronnie Cooley addressed Heaberlin’s concerns about the HVAC system at Prichard. Cooley acknowledged that the system was old and due for an upgrade, but said there was nothing unusual about cutting filters to fit the system. He said that the filters used in Prichard were also among the thicker filters used in the school system. He said they would also be changing air filters at Prichard and other schools more often.
When Heaberlin asked again about the school culture survey Dotson told her that the school system had just completed a survey of the active faculty. Heaberlin pressed on the KEDC survey, noting that it is 100 percent anonymous and there could be conducted at no cost to the school system.
“I just request the survey to be ordered,” Heaberlin said.
She also asked about Easterling’s residential status. She noted that Easterling maintained what she believed to be her primary residence in another state. Dotson, however, noted there was nothing in the board’s rules that prevented a board member from owning property or working a job in another state.
Easterling’s address, as listed on the school districts website, is located in Olive Hill, and she represents the Oakland, Courthouse, Gregoryville, Buffalo and Iron Hill precincts.
Heaberlin wasn’t the only parent to express their concerns about the board and their plans for the coming school year. Technology director Barrett Bush noted that 191 parents joined the meeting online, and many of them had questions that echoed Heaberlin and the Prichard Site Based Council’s concerns.
A number of those questions revolved around concerns about teachers having adequate time to prepare for both NTI and traditional instruction. Dotson explained this is why he asked for, and the board approved, pushing back the student start date from August 6 to August 10.
The board also answered questions about the time off teachers would be allowed in case they were exposed to COVID-19 and had to quarantine, and how contact tracing and informing parents would work. In those cases, Dotson noted, teachers and school personnel, “are in a clas of employees that the federal government has said can have up to ten days.” If they needed more time than that they would have to use their own personal time. Dotson said they didn’t ask the teachers about that because the district was told by the health department what was allowed through the federal program. He said the health department would also handle any necessary contact tracing, based on the contact infected persons had with others, including informing the parents of any students potentially exposed to the virus.
Dotson also elaborated on how NTI would look this year as compared to last year, because of the additional time to plan for it, and noted that the district has granted schools some extra staff to help with cleaning and sanitizing duties. Several parents also asked about mask requirements. Dotson explained that the mask provided would not by N95, but cloth masks only. In addition to the two masks per child already purchased, they were looking at other styles of mask that might be more comfortable to wear. He said they had also discussed plexiglass barriers for teachers, but that the materials were not available.
Easterling said she would, “highly recommend that folks online (who had not had their questions answered) reach out to principals.”
In other action the board approved action on consent items, approved financial documents, and approved School Resource Officer contracts with the City of Grayson and City of Olive Hill police departments.
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