Mercer County schools will reopen for in-person instruction on Monday, March 15.
That was the decision made at last week’s meeting of the Mercer County Board of Education, who voted three to two to reopen March 15. Afterwards, Chairman Randy Phillips, who, along with Vice Chairman Cliff Prewitt voted against the plan, said he wanted kids back to school earlier than March 15.
Students whose parents have opted for virtual instruction will be able to continue online.
While Gov. Andy Beshear said schools could return to in-person instruction on March 1, Superintendent Dennis Davis recommended reopening on March 15. Beshear’s executive order lays out the conditions that schools must meet in order to resume traditional in-person instruction. One of those conditions is that teachers and staff members must have received the second of two vaccinations against COVID-19. People can be exposed to coronavirus right before being vaccinated, or right after, and there won’t be time for the body to develop its defenses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says building immunity typically takes a few weeks.
As a result, teachers who were not fully vaccinated would have to quarantine for two weeks if they were exposed to the coronavirus. Davis told the board that by waiting until March 15, the district won’t have to quarantine.
“I will always try to give our students and our staff the best opportunity to be safe,” said Davis. He said staff members would be better protected if the district waited until March 15.
Students who have been struggling or do not have internet have been back five days a week already.
Prewitt repeatedly questioned the percentages used by the state in reopening schools, but Phillips and board member Billy G. Montgomery explained that the percentages would not change, only the district’s response.
Spencer Tatum, the principal at Mercer County Senior High School, said finding personnel to cover teachers in quarantine was more of an issue than dealing with students in quarantine. While teachers who have been exposed but who are not sick may continue instructing students online, the district has to find substitutes for teachers who are ill. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Mercer and other districts—which rely on older, retired teachers serving as substitutes—have found it difficult to field enough substitutes. Tatum said three sick teachers can cause far more problems than 150 sick students.
During the meeting, the board also approved hiring emergency certified substitutes and emergency teaching certificates for the school year because there are not enough certified individuals.
While teachers unions have been blamed for not reopening schools faster, Davis said that was not the case here in Kentucky. He said teachers want the students back in school.
“Our teachers are ready.” Davis said.
Unless there is a community wide outbreak like at Christmas, Davis said his intention is to stay at five days a week until the end of the school year.
“Once we go back, we’re back in,” the superintendent said.
Going forward, he said decisions would not be based on the Kentucky Department of Public Health’s color map.
“We may use it if there is a county wide outbreak,” Davis said.
Mercer County Elementary School might remain on hybrid longer than the other schools in the district, he said. The state has mandated all students must have individual desks which all face in the same direction. Davis said they have used “buddy tables” at Mercer Elementary for years. He said the school needs approximately 300 individual desks, and the desks may not arrive before March 15. Davis vowed to do everything he could to make sure the desks are in place by the time students return to school. “If I have to drive to Texas, I don’t mind driving to Texas,” he told the board.
Juniors at Mercer County Senior High School and Mercer Central will come to school to take the ACT exam on Tuesday, March 9.
While the discussion to reopen was contentious, one thing everybody agreed on is that everyone is ready to go back to school.