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Board plans for new school year

By: Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

Carter County parents who are anxious to know what the new school year will bring for their children can expect to start receiving phone calls the first and second weeks of July. Carter County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ronnie Dotson told the board last Thursday that parents will be asked at that time if they want their children to return to school normally, or if they want their children to participate in non-traditional instruction (NTI) options, like online classes. He said he hoped that children could return to school, but if they cannot, he hopes they can log-in to classes remotely and participate in instruction in real-time, “just as we’re doing now with two board members,” Dotson said, indicating a computer monitor and webcam setup that was being used to include board members William Bradley and Kirk Wilburn in the meeting.

Dotson said he would understand any parent concerns about a return to traditional classroom. While he said he thought it was best for students to be involved in class, whether or not all students can return to class depends on their individual situation.

“If I had a child that was asthmatic… or lived with grandparents who might be at risk,” he said, he might consider NTI options. Thursday, Superintendent of schools, Dr. Ronnie Dotson, spoke to the board of education about plans for the new school year. Possible scenarios include streaming classes online and staggered attendance for high school students. Photo by Jeremy D. Wells, Carter County Times.

“We can’t send them walking up the holler by themselves,” he said, noting that some students are dropped at bus stops that aren’t near their homes. “We can’t send a second grader (walking home).”

He said the district would likely also have a requirement for students to wear masks on the bus, because of the difficulty with maintaining six feet of distance between students. He said each child would be provided with two washable masks, which the district is currently in the process of purchasing. He said the same requirements would apply in the classroom, where students would either need to be spaced six feet apart or be masked.

He said that the school district was also preparing for new morning and lunchtime routines. Instead of congregating in the gymnasium before school started for the day, he said, students would go directly to their classroom. In some cases, he said, breakfast and lunch might be brought to students in their classroom instead of gathering in the cafeteria to eat. However, because masks have to be removed to eat, if students couldn’t maintain a distance of six feet in the classroom, they might have to stagger eating times in the cafeteria so that social distancing could be maintained at mealtime. To the extent it was possible, though, students would spend most of their time in their classrooms.

“We will do the very best we can, realizing we can’t have a society that is not educated,” Dotson said.

Board member Rachel Fankell asked how high school would be handled, since those students, more than elementary school students, had mixed schedules that required changing classes and didn’t stay with the same classmates all day.

Dotson said at the high school level students might need to stagger their attendance days, but that nothing had been determined yet, and the district was still planning.

He said teachers had until July 15 to tell the district if they planned on returning to work, but other than a situation where a teacher had legitimate medical concerns that fell under the ADA he couldn’t see a scenario where teachers could refuse to return to the classroom and expect to keep their job.

Fankell also asked how sports would be handled, wondering if students would be allowed to compete while spectators were barred from the stands, or if schools would have to forego sports where students might be in close contact with each other.

Dotson said he couldn’t answer that question, but that plans were being reassessed every two weeks. Ultimately, he said, any decisions about what sports could be played – and if fans would be allowed to fill stands – would be made by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA).

Board member Bryan Greenhill asked about the ability of nurses to test students for the COVID-19 virus, but Dotson told him he wasn’t able to answer that question at this time.

Wilburn, speaking via teleconference, asked about the possibility of providing internet hotspots for students without internet access. Dotson said the district had explored the possibility, but that it wasn’t cost-effective. The cost for the service available to the district was “astronomical” he said, with each device to provide the service priced at $100, plus $20 per month with a minimum one year contract. That would lead to a cost of $20,000 to $40,000 per month, which was “not financially feasible.”

In other action the board voted to approve the district financial report, and orders from the treasurer. The board also discussed the selection of the depository for fiscal year 2021 and 2022, and the bond of depository agreement, with First National Bank chosen as the depository.

The board also moved to approve plans for non-traditional instruction.

“In a normal year, I’m never in favor of trading a day of education with a day of worksheets,” Dotson said, explaining that while it may save on costs for substitute teachers and transportation, it wasn’t worth it in the loss of education. But, he noted, this was not going to be a “normal year.”

If students can participate in live, online classes, Dotson said, he felt that was also better than worksheet packets. It would also be better for the district financially because students who participate online will be allowed to be counted as “present” for attendance purposes during this pandemic period.

This, however, led to discussions about the adequacy of online access. Board member Lisa Ramey-Easterling asked if the district had an accurate count of students who had adequate internet access. Dotson said that during the week they planned to test that, by asking parents to all perform a particular online signal test at the same time, the district wasn’t able to proceed. He said the way state surveys about online access were worded also didn’t give an adequate count, because if the home had one smartphone or other devices that could access the internet, it was counted as having online access. But, he noted, that didn’t mean those homes had sufficient bandwidth to participate online or enough devices for all children in the home to connect at the same time.

Ultimately, the board noted, the district would have to be flexible.

“As we move forward to August, it’s going to be very fluid,” Ramey-Easterling said.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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