Op-ed: Trust and Cooperation Between Families and Educators Needed in Return to Classroom

Op-ed by Senate Education Chair Max Wise, R-Campbellsville.

The 2021 Interim of the Kentucky General Assembly began last month with a meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Education, on which I serve as co-chairman. A tumultuous 2020–2021 school year leaves us to reflect on the experiences of our students, teachers, parents, and communities. Lessons learned include the limitations of distance learning, how responsive and adaptive schools can be, and how vital positive community cooperation and collaboration are in meeting the holistic needs of our students.

Our first committee meeting welcomed stakeholders from the academic community, including representatives from the Kentucky Department of Education as well as multiple local school officials. During the meeting, lawmakers heard about how school districts and personnel have worked to make the most of a challenging 2020–2021 school year. Districts and teachers were able to creatively work together to help meet the needs of students and families. However, there are critical decisions to be considered moving forward. Commanding the attention of many is a discussion on vaccination requirements for Kentucky students.

Our school systems serve as an essential partner in promoting public health. Nevertheless, I am a firm supporter of parental choice, and I believe that families’ opinions are a matter of great importance. Appreciation of both public health concerns and conscientious decisions is a delicate balance to strike. Education leaders have already proven themselves capable of doing so. I sincerely hope that school personnel will diligently consult with families on this critical public health issue.

During the committee meeting, I was proud to hear that school districts have made vaccine information readily available and accessible to those who wish to receive it. On this topic, constructive communication is our best path forward.

Last school year, parents, students, teachers, and staff altered their routines and adapted to an overwhelming lack of normalcy. The testimony of committee guests particularly highlighted the essential nature of communication and relationship-building between families and educators. Numerous teachers went above and beyond to accommodate parents’ and guardians’ work schedules, which sometimes required late nights, weekend calls, or virtual interaction. Cooperation like this is a silver lining we can be proud of.

As we prepare for the start of the 2021–2022 school year, let us not discount the importance of trust between our schools and families. Decisions made this summer will impact families across the Commonwealth who trust and depend on our public school systems. Disregarding the personal choice of families will not serve the holistic best interests of Kentucky’s youth.

A recent decision by Jefferson County Public Schools will require unvaccinated students returning to the classroom to wear a mask. I question this approach, as it contradicts the things we know about COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that in-person school operations do not significantly contribute to community spread even before vaccination efforts. Furthermore, a large portion of our K-12 students does not have access to vaccinations. Clinical trials in kids under twelve are still underway, and data is not expected until September. Even then, it will take some time for the Food and Drug Administration to review the results.

I encourage our school leaders to be public health advocates who appreciate parental choice concerning their children’s personal health decisions. Through positive communication and building bridges of trust, we can more effectively encourage wise decision-making within our communities. Those continued efforts will best serve Kentucky students.

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