As numbers of COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the state and area, officials from both local school systems, Hazard Independent School District and Perry County School District, have decided to delay the start date for students. Both school systems were previously scheduled to begin on Aug. 6, but have now delayed the opening to Aug. 24.

“This is due to the increase in COVID-19 cases in our community at this time,” said Hazard Independent Superintendent Sondra Combs. “We were hoping for an Aug. 6 start date, but with the rising number of positive cases and some anxiety of our families, this will give a short window of time to hopefully level off the positive case numbers. As always, the safety of our staff and students is our top priority.”

Hazard students, said Combs, will be offered an option to participate in virtual education, in-person instruction or a hybrid model, but school officials are encouraging in-person classes, she said.

“As a district, we feel in-person, direct instruction from a teacher offers them the highest quality instruction,” said Combs. “The education of our students in this community is laid upon us and we take that very seriously. We want them to have the best education they can get.”

As the situation is constantly changing, she said, the school district will remain in contact with the families of the community.

“This is an ever-changing world we live in and things are constantly changing. As these changes occur we will continue to keep you (the community) informed and be as transparent as possible,” said Combs. “We understand your concern and your anxiety, and we will try to relieve that as much as possible.”

Combs said the Hazard Independent School District plans to have in-person orientation with a virtual option for families not comfortable with the in-person option. Orientation dates include:

• Roy G. Eversole Elementary School — Aug. 17, Kindergarten; Aug. 18, first grade; Aug. 19, second grade; Aug. 20, third grade; and Aug. 21, fourth grade.

• Hazard Middle School (held at HHS) — fifth grade, Aug. 10; sixth grade, Aug. 11; seventh grade, Aug. 12; and eighth grade, Aug. 13.

• Hazard High School — seniors, Aug. 6; juniors, Aug. 7; sophomores, Aug. 10; and freshmen, Aug. 11.

Once re-open, Hazard Independent Schools will offer a synchronous in-person and virtual hybrid model where instruction would be delivered synchronously to students who are at school and at home through virtual live streaming. Teachers will be trained on new protocols and procedures, and the district and schools will communicate plans to parents and inform of all routines and new protocols.

Students will arrive and enter building at different locations on campus. This, said some of the principals, is a big factor in the plan.

“The big thing is we've got four entry points and exit points (one) for each grade level,” said Kevin Combs, principal of Hazard Middle School, explaining that HMS has areas assigned for each grade level. The fifth grade class will go in/out the school's back door then to their classroom; the sixth grade will go in/out of the cafeteria doors then to their classroom; the seventh grade class will enter and exit through the back door and go through the gym then to class; and the eighth grade class will enter and exit by the door next to the playground, said Combs.

“After construction is over and we see the new areas we have, we will adjust our schedules as it pertains,” Combs said. “I believe it to be very successful and very safe.”

Donald “Happy” Mobelini, the principal of Hazard High School, said HHS also has assigned entrance and exit points. The entrance and exit points, said Mobelini, will also serve as the main classrooms for many of the classes. The seniors will enter and be taught in the HHS gym; the freshmen will enter and exit through the main front door then go to library for class; the sophomores will enter and be taught in the cafeteria; and the juniors will enter and be taught in the Forum.

Mobelini said no lockers will be used or assigned at this time. Additionally, he said, school officials are trying to think of a way for the high school to be able to have lunch together if possible. One of the ideas being discussed, he said, is the potential to obtain enough tables to set up outside the school so everyone can eat lunch together while socially distancing.

Signage will be placed in all schools to remind everyone of distance of six feet apart with markings by entrance ways, and desks will be arranged six feet apart facing the same direction. Markings will also be placed throughout the facilities to remind people to practice social distancing. Social distancing will be monitored and in place throughout all schools. Teachers will rotate classrooms to lessen contact. Additionally, custodian cleaning and safety schedules will be in place and will be trained with in healthy at work protocols. All staff and student temperatures will be taken before entering building.

Hazard Independent Schools, said Mobelini, are following all CDC guidelines and he feels like they are prepared as a district.

“We've got every precaution known to man,” said Mobelini. “I think if anybody is ready to start school, our school system is ready to start school.”

Dan Howard, the principal of Roy G. Eversole Elementary School, agreed.

“I think this can go smoothly as long as everybody follows this plan. I think safety is the main goal here,” said Howard.

Officials with the Perry County School District said many of their plans are the same or similar, and they will be following all recommended CDC and health guidelines. In addition to the practicing of social distancing, limiting the movement of classrooms, taking temperatures and wearing masks, Perry County Schools will also be placing Plexi glass barriers in areas that social distancing is not possible, said Perry County Superintendent Jonathan Jett.

Jett said the decision to delay the start of school was because of the recent spikes, and the school is working on adjusting their calendar as needed.

“It's no secret that we've had a spike in the community over the last week or week and a half. I just think it's the most reasonable and safest thing to do to push that back until Aug. 24,” said Jett. The Perry BOE, he said, is currently planning their calendar to allow them to complete all instructional hours and also provide them with some room to adapt breaks and days off if the numbers spike later on as well. The district, he said, may possibly add approximately 20 minutes to each school day to accomplish this.

“We can't think two weeks or three weeks ahead, we're just doing the best we can,” said Denny Combs, a Perry County BOE member.

The board, said Jett, is also trying to determine how many students will be returning to in-person classes or virtual classes.

“At six of our schools between 45-55 percent are coming back. At East Perry and Robinson, it's higher, it's in the high 60 percents and even 70 percent,” said Jett. Volunteers serving on a re-opening committee have called every parent to see if their child(ren) would be kept home for virtual education or if they would return for in-person instruction, he said.

“We want to ensure, however possible, the students' and staffs' safety is our top priority and we will do everything we can to keep anyone from testing positive,” Jett said. “We know that's not realistic probably with the number of people we're talking about. We're going to have positive cases and when we do we're going to take the proper steps to make sure it is isolated and doesn't get wide-spread.”

Both school districts said they will continue to monitor the situation and will update families as needed.

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