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Defying Beshear, Some Kentucky Schools Move Forward With In-Person Opening

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear gives a media briefing at the State Capitol Building on July 14, 2020.
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear gives a media briefing at the State Capitol Building on July 14, 2020.

Catholic schools in Kentucky say they will move forward with plans to open in-person classes this month,against the recommendation of Gov. Andy Beshear to delay in-person instruction until Sept. 28.

The decision came hours before Beshear announced the highest number of new daily cases the state has ever reported: 1,163 new cases. Seven more people have died.

Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, along with Catholic Bishops of Lexington, Covington and Owensboro, sent a letter to Beshear Wednesday saying, "we plan to begin reopening our schools for the fall semester next week, with some schools having start dates later in the month. All of our schools have developed models to begin the school year."

The Catholic leaders said they are "confident" they can "provide a safe environment and be ready to respond when there are positive cases of COVID-19 among our students, faculty, or staff."

The Archdiocese of Louisville has provided guidance for school reopenings. It calls for staff and students in the first grade and up to wear masks, unless they can remain seated 6 feet apart.

The bishops said their decision was driven by concern for student well-being.

"We are concerned for the welfare of our students and their spiritual, social, emotional and academic progress," the bishops wrote. Further, they expressed concern about the challenges parents would face balancing work with a remote-learning scenario.

The bishops said the four dioceses will evaluate the situation the week of September 6 to make possible changes.

Some public school districts have flouted Beshear’s recommendation as well, including Bowling Green Independent Schools and Williamstown Independent. In Warren County Schools, both the superintendent, Rob Clayton, and a board member, Amy Duvall, pushed back against the recommendation.

Beshear Fires Back At School Leaders

During his daily briefing Wednesday, Beshear urged schools to heed his recommendation.

"COVID is hot as a firecracker in Kentucky," Beshear said. "The idea that we would take this step at a time when we are at our peak is simply not a smart move to make."

Beshear said he wanted another month for the state to try to get the virus under control, and time to give Kentucky schools a chance to learn from the mistakes other states are making in reopening schools too early.

"I don't believe we gamble, or experiment, with our kids," he said.

Beshear also noted that in Kentucky a high proportion of children are cared for by their grandparents, who because of age, are more at risk of dying from the virus.

However, the governor said he did not plan to impose any consequences on schools or districts that do not follow his recommendation. He said the only case in which he would order a school or district to close would be if both school leaders and the local health department failed to close the schools after a "severe" outbreak.

What Do Health Experts Say?

Many public health experts, including those with the World Health Organization, say it is not a good idea to have in-person classes while local positivity rates are above 5%. The positivity rate is the percent of tests that come back positive for COVID-19.

"Above that [5%], schools probably should reconsider opening so that you give yourself the best chance of not bringing COVID into the school setting and increasing the transmission among students and teachers," Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine professor Tina Tan said during an Education Writers Association webinar Wednesday.

The state's overall positivity rate was 5.62% on Wednesday, but rates vary locally. In Jefferson County, where the Louisville Archdiocese plans to open to in-person classes, the positivity rate was 8.3% Wednesday.

Positivity rates for other counties was not readily available on health department websites. A spokesperson for Lexington-Fayette County Health Department said the department does not track the county's positivity rate. But infections there are growing. The seven-day average for daily cases has been climbing steadily since June to an average of 85 new cases a day.

In Warren County, home to two districts pushing back against Beshear's recommendation, Beshear said the positivity rate is above 10%, and labeled as "red" by a report the governor receives from the White House. The seven-day average for newly reported COVID-19 cases in Warren has fallen to 26 new cases a day, down from a high of around 40 cases a day near the end of July.

Some leaders have accused the governor of interfering in local control over schools. But the governor rejected that.

"Even if this is 'we're going to make a local decision based on local numbers,' the numbers would suggest it's not the right decision to make," he said.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.