Helm clarifies status of return plan, appreciates patience
Acting Superintendent Marlene Helm clarified the district’s plans for a return to in-person learning and assured the community that Fayette County Public Schools is committed to welcoming all students back to campus as soon as safely possible. “We’re closer than we’ve ever been, but it’s just not an easy proposition,” Helm said during a Feb. 17 virtual news conference. “We have no intention of trying to drag this out. It’s just that every plan written on paper doesn’t always unroll or unfurl the way you want it to.”
Under the COVID-19 In-Person Learning Matrix, students in grades K-2 were scheduled to return for face-to-face classroom instruction starting Feb. 16. However, the series of winter storms and hazardous road conditions prompted FCPS to declare Tuesday a snow day and keep all students learning virtually through NTI:2DL the rest of this week. Grades K-2, which are in Phase 1, are now slated to return Feb. 22 (weather permitting).
In this week’s regular Tuesday update, the district announced it anticipates grades 3-5 joining kindergarten, first, and second grade students on campus beginning Wednesday, March 3. No announcement was made about grades 6, 9, and 12, which are also included in Phase 2.
In the follow-up news conference, Helm and other officials explained that the matrix transition factors can present a challenge and affect the implementation of the overall plan, requiring FCPS to move incrementally and intentionally. “We simply can’t rush through because we said ‘A’ two months ago,” Helm said. “We have every intention of trying to get every student back just as quickly as we can, (but) we can’t give you a definitive date.”
One of the major challenges facing the district is the operations and support transition factor – a shortage of school bus drivers in particular. Myron Thompson, the district’s chief operating officer, reported FCPS has 34 openings for drivers, and another two dozen on staff are unable to return to work at this time because of medical conditions or childcare issues. “We’re actively recruiting people to fill these positions. It just takes time,” Thompson said, noting the district offers classes for applicants to help them earn a CDL license.
Leaders had hoped that having students in grades K-2 back on campus for two weeks would provide time to work out any remaining issues with transportation before bringing back middle and high school students. It takes 217 drivers to cover the elementary school runs, but at the middle and high school level, there are 67 additional routes for special programs, magnet programs, and gifted and talented clusters. Since there is a chance of inclement weather again Feb. 22, decision makers didn’t want to prematurely announce a decision on grades 6, 9, and 12 without first testing the system with the more manageable demands of elementary schools.
“We said, ‘OK, let’s just pause and do a part of this and make sure we’re good, and then move forward,’” said Helm, praising families and students for their flexibility and thanking them for “their patience and willingness to partner with us.”
“It’s unfortunate that this week didn’t roll out the way we wanted, but we’ll just move forward. We’re all excited to welcome our students back,” Helm said. “We want every student to have some portion of this school year to be as typical and normal as possible. Every student deserves to be back in their classroom.”
(Posted Feb. 17, 2021)