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Legislative update: Local school districts deserve kudos for back-to-school plans

By JIMMY HIGDON
14th District State Senator

Monday, Aug. 10, 2020 — As our country and state continue to function in a COVID-19 world, citizens of Kentucky­­­—young and old–—are still dealing with the persisting effects of the pandemic, as well as the side effects of trying to mitigate its impacts. The COVID-19 pandemic and the unintended repercussions of our reaction to it remain the focus of the Kentucky General Assembly during the 2020 Interim Session. As always we are hearing your comments on issues discussed.

SEN. JIMMY HIGDON

I want to begin by complimenting our local school districts: teachers, school board members, superintendents, and students and families throughout Kentucky. There have been many difficulties and challenges in planning for the upcoming school year. All stakeholders have done an excellent job of presenting ideas on ways to ensure the best education for our students while also dealing with the health concerns of COVID-19.

I want to offer the strongest of compliments to Nelson County Public Schools (NCPS) and Bardstown City Schools (BCS). I enjoyed watching a video about NCPS School Safety Teams on the district’s YouTube channel. It put a big smile on my face. Both NCPS and BCS deserve applause for the genuine care they give to students’ need for social and emotional belonging and the need for a sense of normality. NCPS put together a committee early on that and it included members from all aspects of the school district. Teachers, parents, principals, bus drivers, custodians, and even coordination with Family Resource and Youth Services Coalition of Kentucky. School nurses of NCPS have also collaborated to offer telehealth services. Simply put, NCPS has done an excellent job in creating a clear plan that gives due consideration to all concerns, be them academic, physical safety, or social and emotional. I encourage you to visit welcomebackncs.com to find the district’s “Safe School System Plan.” BCS has published informative videos as well on the “Bardstown City Schools” Facebook page. They have also established an excellent website bcsreopening.com where you can find information such as details on in-person learning and online learning, as well as the enhanced health and safety precautions BCS is putting in place to ensure a healthy learning environment. They have amended the calendar as a safety precaution. I appreciate the work of both NCPS and BCS to provide students and families the option of either in person or virtual learning so that they can be comfortable. Both will also be prepared to use Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) if needed.

I hope all school districts in Kentucky will develop a plan as clear and forward-thinking as NCPS and BCS. Everyone is doing the best they can. These are very confusing times when we have all had to adapt to a new normal while still maintaining the vital elements of our society, such as our youth’s education. For a while, there were only suggestions being provided to school districts. In June, more clear “expectations” were presented to school districts, and the school districts here in the 14th Senate District have taken those guidelines and have established plans. One thing is sure and understood by professionals everywhere; reopening schools this fall is of great importance.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published an online article on July 23. In it, they wrote, “Aside from the child’s home, no other setting has more influence on a child’s health and well-being than their school.” They explain that students need their school experience not just for educational instruction, but for the development of social and emotional skills, and some, a haven to learn and have access to their physical and nutritional needs. The CDC joined the American Academy of Pediatrics who wrote in June that:

“The importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy-time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services, often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficit s and well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been a substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families.”

Testimony heard by the General Assembly during the 2020 Interim Session echo these concerns. We’ve learned that identified cases of child abuse are substantially down. Reports are down, not because abuse is no longer occurring, but because children have not been in the safe havens of school or daycare where signs of abuse are usually identified. Meanwhile, drug overdoses have skyrocketed. We need to keep our children and school staff safe, but it’s vital that we keep the side effects of our response in mind.

Our school districts do not have an easy path ahead of them. I ask for patience in the months ahead, because challenges exist and will persist. Nevertheless, to summarize the words of the President of the University of Kentucky, Eli Capilouto, we only have two options. Either 1, choose to lock down, or 2, learn to live in a COVID-19 world. I have long argued that we have to give fair consideration to the health impacts of COVID-19 and its effect on all facets of our society, including our economy, citizens’ emotional and financial well-being, and more. It is all connected. I am grateful to school district leaders and staff for great work and understanding of this.

On that note, I want to transition to information regarding Kentucky’s ongoing unemployment crisis. First, a little history. Kentucky has been providing unemployment services since the passage of the Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933 and the Social Security and Unemployment Insurance Acts of 1935. Unemployment Insurance (UI) offers short-term financial support to people when they are unemployed through no fault of their own. UI serves as a safety net, paid for entirely by employers. As a long-time employer, I know firsthand that one of the most basic principles of running a business is that employees must be paid promptly.

Some unemployment claims dating back to March are still outstanding, and in the recent update from Governor Beshear, tens of thousands still require processing. After initially taking steps into the next phase of reopening the economy, the Governor, troubled by the rise in cases and positive rate of COVID-19, felt it necessary to shutter bars and limit the capacity in restaurants.

Last week, the Governor indicated that during one of his daily press briefings, bars might reopen, and restaurant capacity limits may return to 50 percent. He also stated they would operate with a 10 p.m. curfew, at which time last call and orders would need to be made. Patrons would be given one hour after 10 p.m. to finish drinks and food. If it comes to fruition, the details of this order will be outlined during one of the Governor’s briefings. They will be available online in the Executive Journal through the Kentucky Secretary of State website.

Unemployment claims continue to be filed. The latest shutdown of bars and further restrictions on restaurant capacities likely contributed to an increase over the last couple of weeks. It’s essential to understand what UI is and how this crisis is going to impact our state for the foreseeable future.

As mentioned, we still have employees who became unemployed in mid-March and have yet to receive benefits. We have created an economic and financial crisis within a health crisis. The good news is we finally see progress being made to clear up the backlog of UI requests. Everyone owed back pay from UI will get paid if determined to be a legitimate claim. Updating our unemployment laws and reforms to Kentucky’s unemployment insurance tax structure, which the Tax Foundation has ranked as one of the worst in the nation, will be a priority next session. In a future legislative update I plan to provide some specific details about the State UI trust fund.

An insightful meeting of the Economic Development and Workforce Investment Committee took place the week before last, in which testimony was heard from the former Executive Director of the UI Office. Footage of that meeting—along with meetings in which the following topics were discussed—can be found by visiting ket.org/legislature/archives/.

The following is a brief synopsis of some other topics the General Assembly has discussed recently:

NOVEMBER ELECTION. Kentucky Secretary of State Michael G. Adams testified before the State Government Committee recently. He provided insight into what November’s election might look like, such as offering early in-person voting options to ease the number of people at the polls at once. Expanding absentee voting options were also discussed as a means to do that. Sec. Adams noted that Kentucky had to spend two-thirds of the federal money allocated to Kentucky for the Primary Election. By comparison, the November election will be much more costly. There is currently $2.5 million left for the general election that the federal government provided Kentucky. We will likely begin to hear more recommendations from the Secretary of State, the Board of Elections, and the Governor in the weeks ahead.

NO-KNOCK SEARCH WARRANTS. Representatives from numerous law-enforcement organizations testified before the Local Government Committee that they support stricter regulations on the use of no-knock search warrants. Discussions centered on ensuring they are only utilized in extreme situations where the life of, for example, a hostage, may be in danger. Legislation on this topic is going to be introduced and discussed in the months ahead. Legislation could pass during the 2021 Regular Session of the Kentucky General Assembly.

VETERANS. The Veterans, Military Affairs, and Public Protection Committee on which I am a serving member met and learned that COVID-19 has fortunately not been reported in any of our four veteran’s homes. The Department of Veterans Affairs is going to expand telemedicine with federal veterans’ medical centers in Louisville and Lexington.

COVID-19 UPDATES. The Governor continues to provide updates daily on COVID-19. Long Term Care Facilities continue to make up the majority of COVID-19 deaths (65%). Over 90% of deaths are from cases ages 60 and above. Almost 50% of them are ages 80 and above. This goes to show that we must continue to protect the most vulnerable to this virus. Despite recent mandates, the state’s positivity rate remains higher than it was on average prior to the mandates. Cases have remained relatively high each day, especially in comparison to the days prior to the mandates implementation.

LEGAL CASES. The Supreme Court of Kentucky appears to have plans to take up the case challenging the Governor’s Executive Orders sometime in September. The Plaintiffs in the cases recently filed a motion to request some relief from the orders that would allow restaurants to implement 3.5 feet of distance between tables where customers sit back to back, which would meet guidelines from the World Health Organization. The motion also requests that daycare and childcare centers be granted the ability to increase children’s capacity from 10 to 15. The plaintiffs argue this is a small request for relief that could help save some businesses from having to close permanently. On Friday, a federal judge ruled that orders that ban mass gatherings, including protests, are unconstitutional after the Governor requested a lift on the injunction from a previous court ruling.

In closing, I would like to hear from unemployed constituents who are still trying to get their benefits; please reach out to me by phone at 270-692-6945 or by email to jimmy.higdon@lrc.ky.gov if I can be of assistance. As always, thank you to local newspapers and radio stations in the 14th Senate District. Please take the time to subscribe and to tune in to your local news sources. It’s where trusted news originates. Stay safe, and God bless.

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