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Beshear tells schools to make plans for shutting down on short notice to curb COVID-19

Lexington Herald-Leader - 3/11/2020

Mar. 11--Gov. Andy Beshear ordered school districts on Wednesday to prepare plans for closing on short notice as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

Beshear said he would hold a conference call with school superintendents Wednesday afternoon to talk about the need to prepare for closing with less than 72 hours notice.

"While we are not there yet, it is very possible that in the future we are going to ask schools in Kentucky to close down for a period of time," Beshear said. "We want to be prepared. We want to make sure that if we do that, kids get the meals that they desperately need and the care that they need."

State officials as of noon Wednesday had reported eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 -- 5 in Harrison County, two in Fayette County, and one in Jefferson County.

Although coronavirus doesn't appear to be having a significant effect on children, Beshear said, the high number of people kids interact with "means that we have to be very thoughtful as far as the school system."

In a message to families sent shortly before 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, Fayette Superintendent Manny Caulk said officials with the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department have assured school officials that there is not a public health risk to schools at this time, and do not recommend closures.

"As we have done in previous years, we are prepared to close schools if needed, but we have been advised by medical professionals that such a move is not warranted at this time," Caulk said in the letter. "Just in case, if school closure becomes an appropriate mitigation measure, we have prepared action plans to provide grade-appropriate educational activities and learning experiences for students."

Caulk said district officials will cancel all out-of-state and international travel until further notice, as Beshear has advised. In-state field trips and staff travel to areas of increased risk will also be canceled, he said.

For now, items at schools that get high traffic will be cleaned several times daily and school buses will be disinfected daily, he said. Students will be encouraged to use water bottles rather than drink directly from water fountains.

District officials will discuss accommodations for medically fragile students with families and staffing assignments will be adjusted as needed for older employees or employees with compromised immunity, he said.

Caulk said the district has a coordinated plan to deliver meals to students and keep HealthFirst Bluegrass clinics open to provide care for vulnerable students and families.

Jefferson County Public School officials told the Courier-Journal Wednesday that they were developing a proposal for closing, but had no immediate plans to do so.

Kentucky Department of Education spokeswoman Toni Konz Tatman said department officials were arranging the phone call between Beshear and superintendents.

Tatman said state education officials have been working with superintendents for a couple of weeks to make sure they have a closure plan.

"This should not be something new for our schools to hear," Tatman said.

The decision to close schools is normally a local decision, Tatman said, but the Kentucky Department for Public Health does have the authority to close schools because of the coronavirus.

So far, Tatman knows of only one district -- Harrison County -- that has canceled classes because of the outbreak. That district participates in Kentucky's non-traditional instruction program, called NTI, which allows students to learn from home.

Interim education commissioner Kevin Brown has said he will ask the Kentucky Board of Education next week to make it easier for school districts to enter the NTI program, which allows students to work from home for up to 10 days without having to make them up in the school calendar. Currently, 83 of 172 school districts are participating.

The state board would waive regulations that require schools to apply 120 days before the school year begins. This week, Brown sent out applications to districts not currently in the NTI program.

The Courier-Journal reported Wednesday that a revised version of House Bill 461 in Kentucky'sGeneral Assembly would allow districts to use up to 20 non-traditional instructional days for a public health emergency. That bill was expected to be heard on an emergency basis in the House Education Committee Wednesday afternoon.

Tatman said that more than a dozen districts not currently enrolled in NTI have asked this week about participating in the program. Several of those districts are in close proximity to Harrison County.

Fayette school board chairwoman Stephanie Spires said Tuesday that she did not think Fayette County should apply for the program. She cited concerns about providing services to low income and homeless children, some of whom who might not be able to participate in virtual learning or get needed meals.

Though Fayette is not in the NTI program, district officials have previously said they are prepared to close if needed. Federal officials on Tuesday revealed plans aimed at making sure low-income children are fed if schools close.

Referring to warnings that people should exercise caution in crowds to curb exposure, reporters asked Beshear at a morning news conference if people should attend the 2020 Kentucky Girls' Sweet 16 basketball tournament at Rupp Arena in Lexington that began Wednesday.

"If you fall within the CDC guidelines of being over 60 or being a part of the vulnerable population, having kidney, heart or lung disease or having a compromised immune system, don't go," Beshear said.

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