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Schools in ‘red zone’ to remain open

Jessamine County Schools will continue to offer in-person classes even though the county is now in the “critical” status for coronavirus infections.

On Oct. 29, the Kentucky COVID-19 current incidence rate map showed Jessamine County had moved just beyond the “accelerated” spread status threshold of 25 cases per 100,000 residents to an average of 25.1 and has been designated as a red zone county at the “critical” spread status.

At last Thursday’s COVID-19 briefing, Gov. Andy Beshear reiterated his recommendations for red zone counties, which include moving schools from in-person to virtual learning, working from home as much as possible, reducing in-person shopping, avoiding dining inside restaurants, and other measures designed for citizens to reduce overall activity and limit contacts.

The Jessamine County School District and the Jessamine County Health Department in a press release Friday said they together have determined that the schools are not a major factor in the spread of the virus, and that it is safe for in-person learning to continue.

Of the district’s 8,200 students and 1,500 staff members, there were 11 active positive student cases (four of these are in the Virtual Learning Academy) and three active positive staff cases of COVID-19 as of last Friday. These numbers have consistently remained low since the beginning of in-person instruction on Sept. 28. Contact tracing results have indicated that, to date, Jessamine County Schools and the Jessamine County Health Department have not been able to identify any positive cases of COVID-19 occurring as a result of person-to-person transmission in a school setting.

Health Department Executive Director Randy Gooch said that in Jessamine County, the outbreak in a local long-term care facility has contributed greatly to the red zone designation in the previous two weeks. However, when excluding the Thomson-Hood Veteran Center’s residents, local data shows the county has moved back and forth between the orange and red zones over the previous four days.

“Now is the time for our community to pull together to ensure that we’re taking steps to protect others and ourselves, including wearing masks, keeping at least six feet of physical distance, practicing good hygiene, limiting gatherings, and staying home when sick. If we don’t take these measures, we run the risk of things escalating, potentially risking lives,” Gooch said.

He said his department’s data shows that of the total positive cases in Jessamine County, the percentage of positive individuals associated with the school district (students and staff) actually decreased from the time period when all students were learning online at the beginning of the school year, to the time period that the district has had in-person instruction. He continued to say, “This provides anecdotal information that in-person schools are not a significant contributing factor to community spread, paralleling similar findings across our nation.”

JCS Superintendent Matt Moore said that he believes that his district’s students need their teachers and the support from school staff now more than ever.

“We’re seeing a wide range of social and emotional consequences of the pandemic on our students. Being able to serve them in-person makes a huge difference in how much we’re able to help them, both academically and with the anxiety and struggles that they’re experiencing.”

Moore said that as long as the district can continue to keep the virus from spreading in the schools and JCS is able to keep students and staff safe within their buildings, they are committed to serving students in-person.

“The situation can change very quickly, and we will continue to monitor the data and make decisions accordingly. We also want to avoid the disruption of frequent transitions between in-person and digital learning as much as possible,” Moore said.

Both Gooch and Moore agreed that there is a need to look deeply, not only at local data, but also at the root causes of escalations of COVID-19 cases.

“If we find that our schools begin to be a source of community transmission, whether we have a red county designation or not, we will work with JCHD to evaluate the situation and take appropriate action to safeguard our community. If our community is not able to work together to control the spread of the virus, we may be forced to suspend in-person instruction and other school-related activities for a period of time,” Moore said.