Superintendent Lenny Whalen knew exactly what was on everyone’s mind at the July 20 meeting of the Dawson Springs Board of Education.

“I’ll go ahead and hit on some of the back-to-school items because I know that’s a topic that a lot of folks are interested in,” he said.

A task force representing administrators, certified and classified staff from both of the district’s schools, parents and community members has been compiled and began meeting last week in order to develop an action plan in regards to opening the 2020-21 school session in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Whalen, 30-35 people are involved with the task force, which will meet each Thursday for the foreseeable future.

As of the meeting, which was 42 days from the Sept. 1 start date for students, “nothing is set in stone,” said Whalen. “A lot can happen in 40 days.”

In order to arm the task force with the data necessary to take action, the entire Panther staff was surveyed on July 20. Additionally, last week, administrators called each family to poll parents and guardians on two options: a return to in-person instruction and virtual/remote learning.

Whalen consulted the Hopkins County Health Department to address concerns about masks.

“Nobody is happy about the potential mask situation,” said Whalen. “There will be areas where a mask will be needed.”

If a student is deemed medically unable to wear a mask, “the health department said that, in those circumstances, it is probably best — for the student’s safety — if they do the remote learning from home,” said Whalen. “I know masks are a hot topic.”

If all goes according to plan, the task force will make a proposal regarding the start of the school year at the next board meeting on Aug. 17.

“One thing that I want to say to parents and guardians is to be prepared for three things,” said Whalen.

Among the three action plans that could potentially be recommended by the task force are: in-person instruction — which could either be five days a week or a hybrid model (two groups in rotation completing two days of instruction in-person and three days remotely); virtual learning; or Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI).

According to Whalen, if NTI is absolutely necessary, it will be “lightyears ahead” of where it was in the spring of last school year, and there will be no paper packets assembled, meaning “electronic to the maximum amount.”

The board adopted the “COVID-19 backup innovative alternative school calendar” for 2020-21, which was one of the options approved in May. The first day of school for students, no matter the plan recommended by the task force on Aug. 17, will be Sept. 1. Fall break is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 7, through Fri. Oct. 9; winter break is planned from Dec. 21 through Jan. 1; and spring break from April 5-9. The last day for students will be Friday, May 28.

The board also approved allowing any enrolled student who chooses to work remotely/online in a school-developed academic program to participate in extracurricular activities, as long as the student abides by all required school policies and/or Kentucky High School Athletic Association guidelines (for sporting activities).

“Will we be doing this on a continuing basis, or will this just be in effect for this year?” asked board member Kent Dillingham.

“This will be just for this year given the COVID situation,” said Whalen. “I don’t see us having that type of offering (remote learning or NTI) once this clears up.”

In a short interview following the meeting, Whalen provided some clarification for Panther families in terms of the different action plans.

According to the adopted calendar, the Panther staff will return on Aug. 13 — almost three weeks before students are welcomed back.

“The staff will be preparing for any of the three action plans, but the biggest piece will be getting prepared for NTI at anytime during the year,” said Whalen.

Only about half of Panther households responded to a survey published on social media in June, but of those respondents, “85 to 90% have some type of internet connection at home,” said Whalen.

Taking temperatures and other mandated safety protocols are still in the discussion stages, but all stakeholders should expect multiple entrances, or doors, being utilized for those choosing the in-person option.

“Wherever we can come up with the best options to keep people the safest, that’s where we are going to be,” said Whalen.