Anxious families won’t get answers on masks at Monday’s Fayette school board meeting

·6 min read

Public schools open in Fayette County in about 2 1/2 weeks, but the district still hasn’t let families know if kids will be required to wear masks in classrooms to fend off a surge in COVID cases.

There is also uncertainty at the state level over whether students will get instruction and districts will get funding for students if they are quarantined at home in 2021-2022..

Monday marks the first Fayette school board meeting in about 16 months that citizens can attend in person and speak out. But families aren’t expected to get answers Monday on masks or whether virtual instruction will be offered to students under quarantine, according to district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall.

“District leaders are still working on a guidance document detailing health and safety procedures and information will be shared with our families as part of our back to school messaging,” said Deffendall. Classes begin Aug. 11.

A leader in the Let Them Learn in Fayette County Facebook group, Todd Burus, told the Herald-Leader Thursday that people want answers “sooner than later” about the district’ s decisions on masks and other school COVID issues.

Burus acknowledged that it’s appropriate that new Superintendent Demetrus Liggins, whose first day in the district is Monday, be able to set the “tenor and tone for his new administration” by weighing in on the COVID policies.

“It’s... such a mess right now,” Burus said about the delay in decisions for returning to schools in 2021-22. “Unfortunately, we have to step into this mess and that’s where we have to work together.”

At the Monday meeting, Fayette Commissioner of Public Health Kraig Humbaugh is scheduled to provide an update on COVID cases and on vaccines. Lexington-Fayette Health Department spokesman Kevin Hall said that in July, people with COVID-19 employed at Fayette County Public Schools include 12 who reported being fully vaccinated and four who reported being unvaccinated.

Gov. Andy Beshear on Thursday said parents who want their students in school should get them vaccinated against COVID and take other precautions. Students 12 and over are eligible for vaccinations.

On Friday, Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass and Kentucky Board of Education chair Lu Young met with Beshear and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman to discuss the opening of schools in the fall and the Delta variant, said Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Toni Konz Tatman.

Beshear, Coleman and the education officials plan to jointly discuss the topic at a Monday press conference.

“The Kentucky Department of Education strongly recommends that school districts follow the recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and guidance by the Kentucky Department for Public Health as it relates to the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, said Tatman.

The Kentucky Department for Public Health issued new guidelines last week calling for mask wearing in K-12 schools for those who aren’t fully vaccinated. But school districts will set their own policies for fall.

“I hope that wise decisions are made and things are taken care of in ways that are best for the children,” Burus said. He said the district should not overburden people with interventions.

Groups with opposing viewpoints could take the stage at Monday’s meeting.

People in the Let Them Learn Facebook group, some who have been pushing for families to make their own decisions about mask wearing, are expected to attend. Nema Brewer, a co-founder of the employee group, Kentucky 120 United, says her members will also be there, supporting the recommendations of doctors.

Brewer is asking for her group’s members to stand with her at the meeting against threats to public education.

“We follow science. And the recommendations of doctors. Not political nonsense from sides trying to win points and divide,” she said. “We care about our students and our families. We are parents too. None of this should be adversarial. Unfortunately, rank and file educators are being blamed for things not in their control and it is really getting old.”

“This has never been about parents vs. teachers for us, but clearly to some it is,” Burus responded this week to Brewer on social media. “All we’ve ever asked for is transparency, accountability and the best education possible for our children from the school system WE fund. If that’s unacceptable, then I’m not sure what is.”

On another front, controversy erupted this week over a state plan that could limit at home instruction for students testing positive for COVID or mark absent those who were exposed to COVID and are quarantined. That plan was revealed to state pupil personnel directors on Wednesday. By Thursday afternoon, state education officials said they were trying to find a new plan.

“... We received many questions and concerns about KDE’s plan to ...have quarantined (exposed) students marked as absent,” an email to pupil personnel directors from Ronda Devine, a manager from the state’s tracking and data branch, said Thursday afternoon.

“We have gone back to our legal department to see if there is a way we can waive in person attendance for all quarantined students (positive and exposed)...” the email said.

“There are questions around how instruction would be required for these students... during the time in quarantine,” the email said. “Please give us a little more time to figure out the best way to track these quarantined students...”

Under the state’s current funding mechanism for schools, “there is no way to fund or require instruction for students who are quarantined but not sick,” according to Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Toni Konz Tatman.

Last year, Kentucky public school students were counted present if they participated in instruction from home. The district got state funding for them.

“We are not doing that this year,” Tatman said.

This school year, in order for students who test positive for COVID to be counted and for the district to not lose funding, those students will be placed on the state’s home or hospital status.

Virtual learning is possible. But the Fayette County Public Schools website indicates that the learning for those students could be limited. It says homebound students receive two one-hour sessions per week during daytime school hours with services provided by certified district instructors. Labs and foreign language classes are not provided.

Burus said the issue underscores the need not to “over quarantine” students. Hundreds of Fayette students were quarantined in consultation with the health department when the district returned to in-person learning last school year .

On Thursday night, Tatman indicated that a solution could be in the works. She said the state had a plan “to do an emergency regulation that will ensure students who are quarantined will receive instruction and generate funding for their district.”