Fayette schools get an F in pandemic planning

Emilee Geist

The Fayette County school board and administration appears to be living in some kind of “Groundhog Day” scenario, where every day, they wake up and realize for the first time that we are living in a pandemic.

There’s no other way to explain why AFTER SEVEN MONTHS they would conclude that the hybrid plan they’ve been talking about, but apparently not actually planning for, is impossible to make work.

“There simply isn’t enough time for our schools to design and implement an effective path forward to make a return in November feasible,” board member Tyler Murphy said Wednesday night. Sure, there’s not enough time, except for the SEVEN MONTHS the administration has had to work on ways to get kids back in school.

Sure, the hybrid plans currently working in other districts might be too complicated and cause too much disruption in a district as big as Fayette County. It might mean less instructional time. But why did it take SEVEN MONTHS for them to figure that out?

Two weeks ago, they asked parents to fill out yet another survey. Some 80 percent of teachers and parents support some kind of return to school, but they promptly ignored that with Wednesday’s vote. Why bother asking?

I’d love to know what kind of process or chain of command has gone into not planning for a return to school. Do teachers and principals tell district officials what they think? We don’t know. Every meeting seems to start fresh with a new plan. Yes, Superintendent Manny Caulk has improved somewhat in his communication after being roundly criticized earlier in the school year, but you could hardly call the process transparent.

Here’s what made the least sense of all: The latest goal to send all kids back to school five days a week in January, with no promise of a vaccine or a lull in COVID-19 infections. As Caulk correctly pointed out, in that situation, cases will escalate. But if a lot of parents said on their survey they wanted five days a week, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t support two or three instead.

I don’t necessarily disagree with keeping schools online right now, especially middle and high schools. The district’s ongoing targeted instruction to the kids who need it most is great. But this meeting by meeting approach, both opaque and confusing, has not helped at all. If board members or officials had set some metrics in the beginning, instead of floating all these possibilities, then many parents wouldn’t be so incandescent with rage. (See Let Them Learn in Fayette County on Facebook.)

But boy, folks are mad, they’re planning another rally on Monday night at the school district office. Many who can are trying to get into private school. Public schools have enough problems, and a huge crisis in confidence is not helpful.

Parent Shannon Myers, for example, says her fourth and eighth graders’ teachers are doing a wonderful job with online school, but she was upset with Wednesday night’s decision because it feels like the targets are constantly being moved. Meanwhile, according to the Kentucky School Boards Association, 157 of Kentucky’s 171 school districts have started in-person classes – either 5 days a week, 4 days a week or on a hybrid schedule. At least 20 districts have moved to virtual at some point.

“There’s got to be some motivation that hasn’t been figured out yet,” Myers said. “The fact that other school systems as large as NYC and as small as Woodford County have figured it out, but we can’t doesn’t make sense. Logic doesn’t play here.”

Fayette County Education Association President Jessica Hiler said she thinks the board made the right decision, but teachers are also frustrated by the start and stop approach.

“We’ve asked lots of questions about the plans,” she said. “Sometimes we get a plan and sometimes there’s not a plan in place.”

Hiler said teachers were concerned about the hybrid plan because particularly at the elementary level, it would leave two days without online instruction where kids would have to work on their own. That is true. It was also true in August when they first started discussing it.

Now Caulk and company have a much harder job ahead. They have to convince a whole lot of angry parents that they aren’t moving the goalposts every few weeks. They’ll have to figure out the impossible job of five days a week instruction. Maybe, just maybe they could start working now instead of waking up in late December and realizing they need to put together a plan.

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