The American rendezvous with destiny, by dreaming big, being adventurous, and being undeterred by adversity is in jeopardy. Yes, without question, COVID-19 is dangerous and deadly; but what lies ahead once we overcome this global health pandemic is starting to look more detrimental to students than we ever imagined. Right now, as leaders at the state and national levels appear to be paralyzed, local leaders have had to step up to the plate in ways none could have imagined just a few short months ago.
As state and national leaders look for ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, schools have become easy targets of criticism and baseless claims that they are superspreaders. In fact, scientists at leading research universities, Brown, John Hopkins, and Duke, just to mention a few, are finding that schools are among the safest places for students and adults. When schools follow protocols established by the CDC and state and local health departments, students, teachers, and staff have relatively low exposure to COVID-19. This is not to say COVID-19 does not exist in schools; but protocols that are vetted and science-based, mitigate the spread and lower the probability of transmission in elementary, middle, and high schools.
Each day, we learn of alarming statistics about how COVID-19 continues to negatively impact minority students, rural students, and students from lower socioeconomic families. Too many state leaders across the nation appear to have a false sense of reality that as COVID-19 closed schools across the nation in March, these students spontaneously developed time-management skills, purchased a device, connected to the internet, and, in many cases, actually found shelter (as many students are homeless) in order to do their school work virtually. State leaders continue to rush to exhaust solutions to a current problem. Yet, we continue to fail to address or recognize the short and long-term effects virtual learning will have on our children, America’s most priceless asset. We are crippling our economy and national security, as a result of not listening to educational professionals and researchers, as well as leading medical physicians who advocate keeping students in school.
Each day we hear about the approximately 2,000 Kentuckians we lost due to COVID-19 or the number of students and staff who are quarantined. Our heart breaks for those families and we pray each day for them as well as for good health and speedy recovery for others. As I mentioned, COVID-19 is serious and requires a science-based approach; but what meaningful solutions are we deploying for the 648,000 students at the state level? We understand that emotional, physical, and sexual abuse is increasing among school-aged children and academic failure continues to further create an equity gap. Where is the focus in Frankfort on an entire generation of students? I contend we can be empathetic to the health needs of our students, staff, and communities, while also being strategic in our approach to serving all of them through local autonomy if given the flexibility and full support from Frankfort that we have been asking for since the start of the pandemic.
Sadly, the destruction does not stop there. As leaders across the nation try to make cookie-cutter solutions, as if every county is homogeneous, local control is severely under attack. Yes, COVID-19 is real. Yes, we are facing a medical emergency; but at what cost to local school district autonomy? When are local boards of education consulted? State leaders are making educational decisions in isolation, not fully understanding that without education, public health and the economy are severely crippled. Many boards of education are advocating for in-person classes. Many of them recognize the academic, social, emotional, and health of their students are best served in school - not in a virtual environment. There is a reason boards of education exist, and why local control has been emphasized for decades. More importantly, we look to boards of education and superintendents to make educational decisions based on what is best for their communities. In a health pandemic, superintendents understand the importance of working closely with local health departments and physicians in deciding whether to offer in-person, virtual, or hybrid classes. Many boards of education have decided to remain closed to in-person and we all support their decisions. Sadly, the boards of education who have chosen to have in-person or offer a hybrid option, are viewed as reckless or unrealistic.
School districts like Fleming County Schools, Warren County Schools, and Bowling Green Independent Schools, just to mention a few, have led the way across Kentucky, with the support of teachers, staff, parents, boards of education, local health officials, and the community to offer in-person instruction. There are countless other districts across Kentucky and the nation that have offered a way forward while keeping students, teachers, and staff healthy and safe. Boards of education and superintendents had to take charge in the fall to make decisions about in-person classes, as districts were provided incomplete or confusing information by state leaders. One day we were told to move in-person classes to September 28th just to be told the very next day that it was only a suggestion. Now, boards of education and superintendents who are trying to lead for the betterment of our students, are being threatened with removal from elected office or stripped of superintendent licensure. This is not leadership. Just as healthcare workers will move boulders to help their patients, educators and board members will do the same to reach our students. This is not about trying to circumvent laws or mandates. It IS about leading in a time of crisis when our communities need us most.
Like many others, I'm afraid that we overlook the long-term effects on student academic, social, and emotional health. As I have mentioned before, we owe students the best education possible, even during a global health pandemic. As educators and boards of education, we have the responsibility of finding a path forward for students so that we do not lose an entire generation because we failed or just gave up. We must model resilience when confronted with adversity. We are not cavalier in our decision-making; but instead, compassionate, and undeterred in meeting the diverse needs of our students. Today, we see too many decisions being made in isolation that will negatively impact students, public education, and the autonomy of boards of education in the future. In Fleming County Schools, which successfully reopened and remained open for seven and half weeks without a single positive COVID-19 case tied directly to in-person classes, we have not seen or received a call from anyone from the Governor’s Office or the Kentucky Department of Public Health asking if we needed help or how we did it. Leadership requires a boots on the ground approach that many school districts, including Fleming County Schools, have yet to see from the state. One would think that someone in Frankfort would have thought visiting districts that were experiencing success would have been helpful in making decisions.
Education is critical to economic recovery, even more so during a global pandemic. We have yet to give education a role in the state’s pandemic response plan or in stabilizing the state and local economies. The state has not made reopening schools a priority. Instead, we have continued to use flawed data and reasoning at the state level, circumventing the importance of school officials working with local health departments and physicians who have the most accurate COVID-19 data, as state reporting continues to lag. We have known for months what to expect from October through March, as COVID-19 cases and flu cases increase; but Frankfort failed to invest in schools and make sure they could remain open. Yesterday, Dr. Fauci again sounded the alarm that schools should be the last to close and first to open. Yet, schools in Kentucky were the first to shutter their doors and will be the last to reopen. In anticipation of schools reopening in the fall, as scientists and physicians were voicing, we should have mobilized an army of contact tracers and opened scalable test sites in all communities that would have aided schools in staying open; but we failed. Schools must be a priority in the state’s vaccination plan so that students can go back to learning and the economy can rebound. Since March, Frankfort has glazed over the importance of reopening schools. Education is critical to so much in Kentucky though we have put schools at the end of the line time and time again.
Navigating COVID-19 is public education’s Sputnik moment. Just as the nation, back in the 1960s, was challenged by President Kennedy to land on the moon, “not because it was easy, but because it was hard,” schools must find ways today to remain open if possible. However, our rendezvous with destiny continues to be obstructed by short-sided and unfounded conclusions. Superintendents and local boards of education have been instructed to follow the science since early spring, even as state leaders across the nation are not when it comes to in-person instruction.
We must empower local leaders to make local decisions that are in the best interest of their communities. We must be allowed to operationalize plans that have been months in the making, following guidance given by federal and state agencies, and stop getting berated in daily press conferences for not grasping the severity of the situation. Superintendents and local boards of education were the ones who sounded the alarm months ago asking for guidance, resources, and support to address this profoundly serious situation and they have yet to receive the full backing of state officials, at a time when we needed it the most. Frankfort should have created a focus, like that of Operation Warp Speed that led to the historic development of a vaccine at the national level, to make sure that all schools could safely reopen and remain open. We should have directed all state agencies, an all hands on deck approach (like many local school districts did), to do whatever was necessary to keep schools open. All we received was daily press conferences and paper documents when we needed manpower, innovation, and the FULL support of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Instead of working collaboratively to find solutions, as the hashtag #TeamKentucky suggests we continue to operate in silos. Again, Frankfort failed by not placing an “essential” label on educators. More importantly, we have yet to send a message that all students are valued in Kentucky.
Kentucky will continue to struggle with these sporadic shutdowns if we believe Frankfort has all the answers. We continue to receive suggested solutions or recommendations that are late and not always pertinent to local community needs. This only exacerbates difficulties and does nothing to solve the long-term problem. Frankfort could change the course of this pandemic by truly collaborating with superintendents and boards of education who have created and communicated a shared vision and operationalized robust action plans that are based on the needs of their local communities. Trust must be given back to the local leaders who put the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff first, instead of listening to those in the cheap seats who prefer a timid and status quo approach that fails to keep people safe, reduce the spread of COVID-19, or inspire Kentuckians to overcome adversity and work for the common good.