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Thursday, September 3, 2020

Fort Thomas Schools to Return to In-person Learning September 17

By Robin Gee

Fort Thomas school officials held an open public meeting on Wednesday to announce and discuss a change in the timeline for students to return to classrooms. Students in the district whose families opted to return to in-person learning this fall will be able to do so on September 17.

The school district had worked on a return-to-school plan all summer that asked families and teachers to commit for the semester to one of two options – remote learning or in-person. Those who chose in-person learning could be subject to periods of required NTI, or non-traditional instruction, having students learn from home for a short period if health and safety issues arose. Students would begin their school year in person if all went well.

That was the plan. However, on August 10, due to data about a rise in COVID-19 positivity rates in the state, the governor asked school districts to postpone in-person learning until September 28. Fort Thomas students began school on August 31, but did not come to school, except for in allowable small groups. They were to learn with NTI until the end of September.

After reviewing the data, watching what other districts across the state were doing and working closely with health department experts, however, school officials felt they could move that date up and return to in-person learning sooner on September 17.

The importance of bringing students back

Superintendent Dr. Karen Cheser said new and better information paired with mounting concerns about the harm that could be done if students stayed in isolation contributed to further discussion and the decision to bring students back earlier in September.

She said the schools have been working very closely with health department officials on all aspects of returning to school and she is very confident that Fort Thomas Schools are well-prepared to keep students and staff safe.

"We cannot say it enough, to be honest, if it was to unsafe to go back, if we did not think we could mitigate risk, if we weren't following every single requirement, we would not do this,” she said.

“Why is this important for us to bring our students back? I’ve heard this quote before, 'When you know better, you do better.'... As we have learned more information, as we know more about what our current situation is, as we know more about decision making at the state level, we know we have to do something."

She went on to list the many reasons not attending school in-person has harmed students. She focused on five important issues:

Mental health: In speaking with child mental health experts including the district’s clinical psychologist, Dr. Patrick Richardson, suicide and suicidal thoughts have risen dramatically among children since the start of the pandemic. Dr. Cheser noted, too, that some students are suffering with loneliness and anxiety from the forced isolation and need to be with their peers.

Social and emotional development: Dr. Cheser said many parents have expressed concerns that since students have been out of school, their executive functioning skills, such as their ability to stay on task, self-regulate and work with others has decreased. She said this magnifies the important work of teachers in the classroom to promote and encourage those skills.

Physical needs: Beyond the need for exercise, Dr. Richardson said even some students’ nutrition is suffering with snacking and irregular eating patterns throughout the day.

Student safety: Dr. Cheser noted that having students, especially younger ones, in class where safety measures can be taught, enforced and re-enforced helps students develop the habits they need to keep themselves safe. 

Updated Healthy At School guidance came earlier in the week during a Kentucky Department of Education Superintendents' Advisory Council meeting. Kentucky’s students and staff should wear masks at all times while they are in school, even if they are at least 6 feet apart. Cheser said that Fort Thomas Schools would adhere to this guidance.

Academic needs, long-term impact: The worry is that some students are slipping behind. In important things like reading skills, this can be cumulative and the longer this goes, the more difficult it can be for students to "catch up." 

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Making data-driven, well-informed decisions

When the decision to hold off returning to school came down in early August, the statewide data available pointed to increased positivity rates (the number of those testing positive divided by the number of tests performed) in the state.

Since that time, Dr. Cheser, Assistant Superintendent Jamee Flaherty and members of the re-opening team have worked very closely with state and county health officials to better understand the data and to get a clearer picture of what is happening in Northern Kentucky.

In making the decision to go back to in-person learning, Dr. Cheser said, they have taken into account everyone’s viewpoint and voice, and have taken into account the data and the science involved. Officials tried to cut out all the noise of politics and other agendas in making their decision.

"We needed to make a decision that is in the best interest of our children now. We know we are making a decision that also is in the best interest of our staff and their safety," said Dr. Cheser.

While the decision might not make everyone happy, she said "We just have to do the best, that absolute best, for our kids based on all of this information."

Why September 17 was chosen

Dr. Cheser went on to explain why September 17 was selected. She noted that the larger schools, Highlands High and Middle schools and Moyer Elementary will do a 50 percent phase-in, with half of the students beginning on the 17th and half on the 18th.

September 17 is a Thursday, and there were reasons to chose a midweek day rather than a Monday. The middle of the week allows teachers and staff to better prepare for the transition. Also, she noted, students working at home have not had the practice of being on school tasks the entire day, and giving them only a few days would help with their adjustment to the return and pace of school.

The date also allows teachers time to prepare for the classroom. Only a short time ago, they were asked to make a somewhat sudden switch to NTI, and so, officials wanted to give teachers a full two weeks to reorganize and prepare lessons for in-person learning.

Dr. Cheser also noted that parents and families have had to make and change arrangements as the situation has evolved. She wanted to give parents time to prepare for the switch back to having students come back into school as well.

The schools have also been working with small groups of students, and the timing allows more time for small groups to practice class transitions and other things necessary in attending school in the "new" COVID world.

The new date of return gives teachers, staff, parents and students time to adjust, but gets students back in a safe manner as quickly as possible, said Dr. Cheser.

Hard work and careful consideration

Dr. Cheser said teachers and staff were surveyed and support for in-person return on September 17 was very markedly split down the middle. Some felt the original date for return shouldn’t be changed, others wanted to go back right away.  Parents were overwhelming in support of in-person learning as soon as possible.

The Wednesday public hearing was held, she said, to share all the information that went into the decision so that people understood what went into it.

"Probably the easiest thing that we all could do is just have said in May or June we're just not coming back to school. I can't tell you the number of hours... the amount of constant problem-solving that many of the people in this room have done, whether that's our principals, whether that's our district administrators, our board, our teachers -- everyone has worked fearlessly and tirelessly to be able to create a situation where our children can come back to school," she said.

That effort has paid off. The district’s Healthy at School document, website and data dashboard is already being used as a model for other schools in the state and beyond, she said.

She praised Assistant Superintendent Flaherty, school technology specialist Heidi Neltner, parent Emily Morel and many others who helped develop the material and who have helped in mining and sharing data and other information.

The schools are ready

Assistant Superintendent Flaherty shared details on the safety precautions in place throughout the school buildings. She has been meeting and working daily with officials from the Northern Kentucky Health Department, the Kentucky Department of Education, experts from St. Elizabeth and other state experts to share information and to get their advice and review of Fort Thomas plans.

Every precaution will be taken, she said, to ensure extensive cleaning and sanitizing is done, face masks are required, distancing is in place, but schools will also test students coming in every day, even thermal imaging is in place to scan for fevers within classrooms.

In situations where contact must happen closer than six feet, those involved, such as school therapists, will wear full protective equipment, including gowns, gloves and face shields. The schools have covered as many bases as they can. For students with speech therapy, for example, special masks that allow therapists to see students’ mouths as they talk have been ordered.

She outlined the district’s extensive plans outlining how the schools will respond should a student or staff member test positive or are exposed to someone who has tested positive. The schools have worked with health experts and created a flow chart to indicate exactly how different situations will be addressed. All this information is available on the schools' Healthy at School website.

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The virus is the enemy

In the comment session of the meeting, Dawn Hils, co-president of the Fort Thomas Education Association, said, "We have learned a lot in the last month, and we are very grateful for that time. Our understanding is that the importance of masks has obviously evolved, these masks a real game changer... but please know that teachers are torn, they are truly torn. Some are eager, some are terrified, but most are at least uncertain. Everybody has different views, and those views are very valid," she said.

"So I’m not here tonight to say, please do one thing or another. I’m just here to validate the different feelings of all of our faculty and staff members. We are all trying our best, the board, teachers and staff, our community. The thing we need to remember is we need to be frustrated with the virus not with the people."
Hils concluded, "As you know, we have teachers and staff who have many chronic conditions. They’re taking care of elderly parents. Their children might have conditions that are concerning. The uncertainty is very real. But the important thing to remember is that while our survey results are split, we truly appreciate and want to express that appreciation tonight for the ability to share our feelings and so thank you for that and most importantly, let’s just keep reminding ourselves that we are all on the same team."

Amy Shaffer, mother of three students in district and president of the Fort Thomas School Foundation, expressed solid support for the plan.

"It’s been 173 days since our students have been in a school building, 173 days since our valued and teachers have provided in-person instruction to our students, with no social and emotional support from our district’s professionals...Humbly and emphatically, I support your decision to open our schools to in person learning. Let our students and staff once again show Kentucky and the country how to succeed. Give them a chance to learn safely and productively in a Covid world," she said.

Carol Dixon, a parent with children in the schools, spoke emotionally about the toll the situation has taken on her children and her family.

Following the comments, each of the school board members expressed support for the decision.

A vote by the board was not required for the decision, nor was a public hearing, but the superintendent and the board wanted to share all the background information with the public and staff. Board Chair Karen Allen noted that, while the vote was not necessary, the board held a vote anyway to show support and unity on the decision.

Dr. Cheser thanked everyone once again for their hard work and dedication to doing the very best for the district’s students. She said, there may be a time when the data shows the necessity of returning to NTI, and when that happens, she will make the decision as needed. Parents, staff and the community are encouraged, she said, to refer to the Healthy at School website to keep abreast of the situation as going forward.

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