FRANKFORT, KY— Schools, hospitals, childcare centers and long-term care facilities testified before lawmakers this week asking for help as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause staffing, funding and operational challenges.
The hearings – organized by four legislative committees – were all part of an effort to consider solutions to COVID-related issues ahead of a potential special session of the Kentucky General Assembly.
Lawmakers can only be called into special session by the governor, and that had not occurred by Thursday afternoon. Still, legislators were eager to assess the conditions on the ground.
Representatives from the Kentucky Justice & Public Safety Cabinet and Kentucky Jailers Association testified Wednesday that COVID-19 has exasperated staffing shortages at correctional facilities across Kentucky and increased operating costs. That was during a joint meeting of the Interim Joint Committees on State and Local Government.
“It is very difficult to hire people to come into a jail anyway, but you add COVID to that and it is beyond impossible,” said Campbell County Jailer Jim Daley, who is also the jailers association president. “I have a suggested capacity for deputies of about 85. I am 50 down. It’s dangerous and difficult.”
Also on Wednesday, Jim Flynn, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents, spoke to the Interim Joint Committee on Education about the way COVID-19 is impacting public schools.
Flynn said many of the school systems that have recently announced closures are due to staffing shortages. If there are teachers who are sick or need to be quarantined due to exposure, school systems are struggling to find substitute teachers. Bus drivers are also in short supply.
Committee Co-chair Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, said he believes the goal of any policy regarding COVID-19 and schools moving forward should be to continue as much in-person learning as possible with safety in mind.
“We can manage the threat that we’re under,” Wise said. “And we can do that with common sense, but in a safe manner.”
Some suggested solutions included expediting the background check process, clarifying COVID-19 quarantine policies, investing in teacher recruitment and retention, increased COVID-19 testing and more.
Overall, Wise said he is not in favor of mandates or offering schools more Nontraditional Instruction Days (NTI).
Senate President Robert Stivers II, R-Winchester, said any legislation that may come up during a possible special session should provide school districts flexibility. Flynn agreed that there is not a “one size fits all” solution to the issues COVID-19 has created for public schools.
On Thursday, lawmakers on the Interim Joint Committee on Health, Welfare and Family Services heard from child care representatives on how staffing shortages and a mask mandate for children is creating hardship.
Jennifer Washburn, owner of iKids Childhood Enrichment Center, told lawmakers a mask mandate for children 2 years of age and older is not working well for most 2- and 3-year-olds.
“I compare my daily experience of masking 2-year-olds to trying to keep a mask on a cat,” Washburn said.
While many of the children under the age of 4 are struggling to keep their masks on properly, Washburn said her facility has done well at preventing a COVID-19 outbreak. Frequent temperature checks, staff masking, constant sanitizing of hands and surfaces and strict quarantine guidelines have worked well at iKids.
However, like public schools, Washburn is having trouble hiring staff.
Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, shared that he is working on a bill to address issues facing childcare centers. His bill will focus on World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations and local control. WHO currently does not recommend children under the age of 12 wear a mask.
Committee co-chair and physician Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, shared some of his COVID-19 mitigation plans with his peers Thursday. Alvarado said he is in the process of setting up monoclonal antibody treatment centers across the state. However, there are some barriers to access to treatment that the General Assembly may need to address.
Alvarado also hopes lawmakers can work on resolving hospital staffing issues and increasing COVID-19 vaccine education and access during the possible special session.