Yes, Kentucky school districts can reject Beshear’s recommendation. But should they?

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear made waves last week when he officially recommended that all schools start virtually through at least September 28th because of the state’s high rate of coronavirus transmission. However, several school districts have already indicated that they will buck the recommendation with others potentially joining in this week. That’s leading many educators and parents to ask a simple, but interesting question: Can they do that? Can school boards actually reject a recommendation from the governor? And if so, why would they want to?

The short answer is yes, they can, and their motivations for doing so vary based on a number of different factors in their respective communities.

First, keep in mind that Gov. Beshear’s plea to begin the school year with non-traditional instruction (NTI) is a “recommendation,” at least in name. There is no power of law behind a recommendation, and school boards have no legal obligation to take action.

When Gov. Beshear made recommendations in the spring regarding schools and COVID-19, every school district in the state complied — and rightfully so, given the novelty of the circumstances. In March, there were no #HealthyAtSchool guidelines to inform and direct education leaders. There was little awareness of the effectiveness of face coverings. There wasn’t even a general consensus of what COVID-19 was and how it could spread.

Obviously, that isn’t the case now. Kentucky’s testing and contact tracing capacities have increased significantly and several of our rural communities have experienced much lower transmission rates than the state as a whole. It isn’t helpful or accurate to assume that school districts deciding to go against Gov. Beshear’s recommendation are doing so out of a spirit of rebellion. In many cases, it’s a risk-benefit analysis that looks at a whole host of local conditions, including childcare needs, district staffing, and the rate of new COVID-19 cases within the community.

However, despite the issue being one of local control, it remains to be seen how supportive state officials will be toward districts choosing to advance with in-person classes before September 28th. During a virtual town hall with Kentucky school board members last week, Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown made it clear that any district deciding to reject the governor’s recommendation would need to engage in conversation with the Kentucky Department of Education. He also recommended that school districts have their attorney with them for that chat, too.

“My goal would be to have a different outcome at the end of the conversation and that would be a goal that would be achievable,” Brown said during the town hall.

In other words, school districts can “choose” to follow the recommendation or not. But if they don’t, they may end up facing the administration’s wrath.

Dr. Gary Houchens, a former Kentucky Board of Education member, has opined that this “recommendation” is actually more of a threat given these ramifications. Houchens recently called out the governor for “bullying” school district leaders into compliance and has encouraged superintendents to stand up against the recommendation. Other critics, like Warren County Schools board member Amy Duvall, have also blasted the governor for the “one-size-fits-all” approach.

Gov. Beshear’s tone has since struck a noticeable contrast with that of KDE’s original messaging, and Beshear has now clarified that he won’t shut down schools that go ahead with in-person learning unless a “massive outbreak” occurs. Interim Commissioner Brown has also taken a softer tone as of late, saying that the “KDE enforcement squad” won’t be showing up in the event that more schools decide to reject the recommendation.

So where does that leave school leaders trying their best to proceed into the fall semester? Will board members and superintendents decide that just because they can proceed with their plans for hybrid or in-person learning, that doesn’t mean they should? Will leaders in rural areas with low transmission rates press their luck with the administration and simply hope for the best?

Given how rapidly the landscape of this pandemic can change, there may be no clear-cut answer for any leader. Let’s extend grace to them as they navigate these unprecedented circumstances and think about what solutions will work best for their communities. 

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