Legislators wrestle with how to keep students in the classroom and at what age to require masks in day-care centers

Sen. Max Wise

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

As Kentucky lawmakers gear up for a special session to take over management of the pandemic, under a court ruling that upheld laws to limit the governor’s emergency powers, two of their priorities are how to keep students in the classroom and how keep young children in day-care centers safe.

Sen. Max Wise, co-chair of the Interim Joint Committee on Education, told Kentucky Health News after the panel’s meeting Wednesday that finding a way to ensure in-person learning for Kentucky’s students is imperative.

“I think if you talk to any parent that had a child go through last year’s school year, they will tell you virtual education is not the answer for long term,” Wise said. “We have — at all expense — to do whatever it takes to keep kids with in-person learning. If we go two years of having a shutdown with education, we’ve already had irreparable damage for one year, two years could be costly on so many levels, emotionally and also educationally.”

As schools grapple with how to deal with large numbers of students being quarantined because of exposure to someone with the coronavirus, a few schools have found an alternative that legislators are discussing.

Green County School Supt. Will Hodges told Wise’s panel that the district’s “test to stay” program allows students who are known to be exposed at school to remain in the classroom if a parent or guardian allows them to be tested for six consecutive days, with allowances for the weekend, and if all tests are negative.

Hodges said 159 students have participated in the program, and 146 of them remained negative and stayed in school — a 92% success rate, and a sign that the virus is not spreading in the school. He said only 5% of the district’s students have needed to quarantine and fewer than 2% have tested positive.

Wise, a Republican from Campbellsville, said most of the school districts in his senatorial district are following this model, including Adair, Russell and Cumberland counties.

Hodges acknowledged that not all school districts are like his, with nurses in every school, a working relationship with the health department and a community health center that provides care to students.

Rep. Ken Fleming, R-Louisville, wondered how the program could be scaled up to larger school districts. Sen. Danny Carroll said some superintendents told him it would require help from their health departments, which are already overextended.

The Kentucky Nurses Association School Nurse Task Force has said that only 43% of Kentucky schools meet the National Association of School Nurses recommendations for a minimum of one nurse for every 750 students.

Wise said the test-to-stay model is just one idea the legislature is looking at, and that it could work as part of a broader plan. He said Gov. Andy Beshear controls a large sum of federal pandemic dollars that could be used toward this and other efforts.

At his Thursday press conference, Beshear called the model “an interesting concept,” and said “It shows how important masking is. . . . If you’re going to do it, masking is a must.”

Wise wouldn’t say that test-to-stay is a replacement for masking, though he said it certainly doesn’t provoke the same level of controversy as universal masking, which Beshear says is necessary to keep students and staff in the classroom.

Wise said, “Right now, what we’re seeing is that we’re getting hurt right now with quarantine for staff and student absences. That is really hurting our districts.”

With school in session for about a month, 30 of the state’s 171 school districts have already paused in-person learning due to high numbers of coronavirus cases, Beshear said.

Eric Kennedy, director of advocacy for the Kentucky School Boards Association, told Wise’s committee that “the number one” driver of school closures has been staff shortages, not student virus cases.

“The most immediate direct thing that can help us with the quarantine issue that’s exacerbating our [staffing] shortage would be if more folks would get vaccinated,” Kennedy said.

School employees who are fully vaccinated do not have to quarantine if they are exposed to the virus and have no symptoms, according to state guidance.

The challenges to keeping students in the classroom are many. Not only is Kentucky reporting record numbers of virus cases, almost every county in the state is in the red zone, considered the highest level of transmission.

Further, school-age children are being infected at rates higher than at any time during the pandemic, with hospitals reporting huge spikes in the number of children in intensive care because of the virus. On Thursday, 32.5% of the 5,457 newly reported cases were in Kentuckians 18 and younger.

Added to that, only children 12 and older are eligible for vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only 41.7% of the state’s 12- to 17-year-olds have been fully vaccinated.

The lawmakers also discussed at length about how to stabilize school funding, which is based on the average daily attendance; the best use of non-traditional instruction and virtual learning days; the need for flexibility in plans that do not require a one-size-fits-all approach; and ongoing staffing shortages.

Child-care centers

Sen. Danny Carroll
(LRC photo)

At Thursday’s meeting of the legislature’s joint health committee, Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Paducah, said he is working on a bill to establish how child-care centers should operate going forward in the pandemic, one that would make age 5 the threshold for masking instead of age 2, as the state has required.

“We have made an effort to put together a bill that will allow the centers to continue to operate in a safe manner, and an efficient manner, in a manner that will help to allow the development of our kids, which sometimes during this entire ordeal seems to have been overlooked,” said Carroll, who runs an early-childhood education center.

Carroll said his bill will follow guidelines of the World Health Organization, which does not support masking under age 5, and provides guidance for when children six to 11 should wear them.

The age-2 threshold is supported by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Beshear said at his press conference that using age 5 as the threshold will eventually make it difficult for day-care centers to stay open.

“On masking, I think people need to be very careful about picking and choosing” between the CDC and the WHO, he said, and think about workers in the centers, who are exposed all day long to children who are not eligible to be vaccinated. “Just like every decision I’ve had to make,” he said, “there’s life and death at issue.”

Jennifer Washburn, owner of iKids child-care center in Benton, told the committee that trying to mask 2- and 3-year-olds is a problem because of developmental issues and sanitary concerns. She said kids drop them, swap them, chew on them, don’t wear them properly, and require ongoing coaching and help to keep them on.

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