Students return to Boone County schools despite ‘red zone' guidance

Boone County schools to return to 4-day in-person learning

BOONE COUNTY, Ky. (FOX19) - The Boone County School District is moving forward with plans this week to return students to the classroom despite the county being ‘red’ on Kentucky’s incident rate map, according to Superintendent Matthew Turner.

Turner signaled last week students in the district would return four days per week in a hybrid A/B learning format beginning Monday.

That was before Kentucky’s decisive Thursday incident rate map showed Boone County with an incident rate of 30.8 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days, placing it in the ‘red’ for the first time.

The county’s incident rate has since increased to 40.7.

School districts in ‘red’ counties are advised to go fully virtual, per Kentucky Department of Public Health guidance. It is not a mandate.

Turner sent an email to parents and students Tuesday in which he acknowledged the increase in cases and sought to explain the decision he described as “difficult” and “controversial."

Turner says his decision was informed by guidance from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Cincinnati Children’s guidance is followed by Hamilton County Public Health. The presentation Turner references shows data from several surrounding Ohio counties but does not mention Boone County.

Turner nonetheless cites the presentation, particularly minutes 12-23, in which, so he says, “they shared that schools and districts should focus on school and district metrics rather than community metrics when making opening and closing decisions.”

Robert Kahn, MD, professor in the division of general and community pediatrics, delivers that part of the presentation focusing on transmission in school buildings.

Kahn distinguishes the updated school guidance from prior guidance, which relied on “models built over summertime using community metrics and community epidemiology.” New data about community transmission and school transmission requires a shift in priorities, Kahn says.

The argument is schools shouldn’t make learning-model decisions (whether to go fully remote, hybrid, or fully in-person) based on community spread alone, but on the presence and extent of spread in school buildings themselves.

The question is not whether students will get the virus at school but whether they are more at risk of getting the virus at school than not, Kahn says.

Gov. Andy Beshear hasn’t been silent on the issue. Relying on Kentucky Public Health Department data, he’s made similar statements about the virus in schools, saying school buildings rarely catalyze community spread. But he’s also said the virus can and does spread in schools, and even with that data in hand, he has reinforced the guidance that ‘red’ counties should shift to fully remote learning.

As of Monday, when the guidance went into effect in Boone County, Turner and the Boone County School District were operating in defiance of it.

Turner’s emailed statement reads in part:

"We have significant safety protocols in place that are designed to limit exposure and spread of the virus. Moving forward we will watch for transmission of the virus in our schools very closely and take targeted action as necessary to close part of school, a whole school, or a cluster of schools. Our plans are to be able to operate in this fashion throughout the next two months and the rest of the school year.

"Make no mistake, some significant fear and anxiety exists in our school communities regarding the pandemic. However, we believe that schools are safest place for our students as we conduct temperature and symptom checks, masks are mandatory for everyone, social distancing must be observed as much as possible, hand sanitizer is available in every classroom, and common surfaces are cleaned regularly.

“We may have positive cases walk into our schools unfortunately, but if we perform these mitigation strategies effectively then we will reduce the possibility of transmission of the virus in our schools.”

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