During the Sept. 28 Hazard-Perry County Chamber of Commerce meeting, superintendents of the Hazard Independent and Perry County School Districts discussed measures their facilities have taken during the COVID-19 pandemic, and provided a community update.

“It’s definitely been a trying couple of years to say the least, but we’ve been able to navigate it and do some different things,” said Jonathan Jett, superintendent of the Perry County Schools District. Among those measures, said Jett, have been masking, social distancing, disinfecting, vaccinations, testing and providing additional assistance to students who need it. “We’ve put a lot of things in place to try to prevent the spread of COVID over the last two years. Of course masking is the biggest thing we do, and I think it is helping us prevent the spread from happening more often.

“Most recently, I know everybody is familiar with the legislation that banned the mask mandate from the legislative session. Our board went ahead and approved to require masks in a five to zero (5-0) vote. We will revisit that as the numbers decrease,” he said, explaining that the district will continue to monitor the county’s color chart to determine case numbers and community transmission levels.

“Once we get back into the yellow with our numbers, we may look at making the masks optional,” said Jett.

In addition to masking, Jett said the district has also placed plexi-glass dividers throughout their school and the dividers are used to separate desks and tables. The district, he said, also continues to practice routine and thorough cleaning and disinfecting efforts throughout all the schools in the district. Perry County Schools are also in partnership with Primary Care Center to have nurses in all district facilities for testing, said Jett, and the district has had vaccination clinics at their schools. Jett said approximately 70 percent of the staff has been vaccinated, and the schools are trying to get eligible students to vaccinate too.

Jett said that with recent case increases, many have questioned why the district has remained in school. This decision, he said, was made for the safety and security of students and the community at large.

“We were the highest rated county in the nation at one time,” said Jett. “Our schools are probably the most controlled environment, or one of the most controlled environments, in the community to keep the spread of COVID from happening because we do require masks. So if we’re not in school — and I’m not being critical of parents or students either one – but the students are going to each other’s houses, they’re having sleepovers, they’re having birthday parties and that’s not a controlled environment. At least when they’re in school it’s somewhat controlled.”

“In the last legislative session there was a topic called Test to Stay which would allow students that were exposed at school to be tested every morning,” said Jett. Perry County did adopt it, he said, so if someone is masked and is three feet or more away from the positive person upon exposure they do not need to quarantine as long as they test negative. This, he said, helps maintain attendance for in-person instruction.

“Moving forward we’re really gong to make a conscious effort to focus on the social-emotional needs of our students,” said Jett, adding that Perry County has worked to become a trauma-informed district. The district, he said, now has the Handle With Care program that allows law enforcement to contact and notify the school when a student’s house is responded to in an incident.

“As a trauma-informed district we want to approach students’ behavior a lot different. Some students deal with a lot of trauma. Every student has dealt with trauma over the last two years,” said Jett. The district, he said, is considering using extra funding to hire professional mental help for schools if needed.

Jett said he appreciates the community’s support during this time, and said he knows it is not always easy.

“Things change not from week to week, not from day to day, but from hour to hour. We have to be flexible and we have to ask the community to be flexible,” said Jett.

Sondra Combs, superintendent of the Hazard Independent Schools District, said the city schools are practicing many of the same measures as the Perry County district. Like Perry County, Hazard Independent Schools also requires masking in schools and during indoor sporting events, uses the Test to Stay program and uses the Handle With Care program, said Combs. Additionally, she said, the district has enough technology to send a device home with every student in the district if needed.

One of the most helpful tools the district has, she said, has been the air purifiers the district purchased for additional safety against COVID-19.

“We purchased air purifiers for every classroom, every cafeteria and our gyms that are located at the schools. These air purifiers eliminate COVID-19 and the delta variant. They are research based,” said Combs. “It is NASA technology. It has a filter in it and a bulb that kills the COVID virus. They run 24/7. We feel it was worth the cost to make sure our students could stay as safe as possible,” she said.

In addition to the purifiers, Combs said the schools have continued to clean and disinfect as well.

“We have also continued our cleaning protocols. Even though we have air purifiers that are supposed to wash the room when you walk in — it even sanitizes the bottoms of your shoes — even though that happens and it kills the virus that way, we still continue to clean and disinfect,” Combs said.

Combs said the district has also tried to encourage vaccination efforts by offering incentives to staff to get vaccinated.

“The state has offered an incentive pay if anyone in our staff gets vaccinated. If you’re fully vaccinated the state will reimburse the district $100 to pay an incentive for staff to get vaccinated. Our board has decided this is such an important issue that we’re going to match that so every faculty member, classified or certified, that is fully vaccinated will get a $200 incentive,” said Combs.

The district, she said, will do this up until Dec. 1.

“It is a tough time for everybody. We have hard decisions to make but we rely on the experts,” said Combs, stating the district remains in contact with healthcare officials and community partners. “The highest quality instruction you can get though is in person so that is our main goal.”

Both school districts said they will provide updates as they monitor the COVID-19 pandemic.

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