Carter County Health Department Director Jeff Barker and Nursing Administrator Jana McGlone say they will strive to further improve communications with officials at the Carter County Schools office regarding recommendations to keep students and staff safe during the ongoing upswing in local Covid 19 cases.
Recent decisions to return to virtual learning, with no face-to-face classes, have caused frustrations and a flurry of angry comments on social media. A statement released by the health department, citing a recommendation to stop in-person classes more than two weeks ago, received particular concern.
“I’m not throwing mud at nobody. We have worked with the school board since this started and we’ve always had open communications,” Barker said last week.
As the number of local cases began to rise, Barker said he called Carter County Schools offices and spoke with Ryan Tomolonis and told him they needed to work together on a plan to close classrooms if necessary. A couple of days passed before Barker again called Tomolonis and made his recommendation to go to remote learning.
“He stated that (superintendent) Ronnie Dotson was in a principals’ meeting and that he would talk to him as soon as he got out,” Barker said, noting the recommendation was made about the same time as the East Carter High School football team was placed on quarantine.
Carter County positive rate had reached “the high side of the orange,” he said, adding Frankfort’s guidelines advised to “consider remote learning only.”
“25 is the cut off. We were at 22,” he said.
“We had a lot of kids under quarantine with the potential of getting sick. It seemed like we had a lot of kids and staff quarantined and with positive test results.
McGlone and Barker said they had become frustrated with the volume of calls the department was getting from people who did not understand local health officials do not have the power to close schools or cancel sporting events.
“What we give is just a recommendation. We can’t close schools or cancel sports – all we can do is recommend,” he said, adding those decisions ultimate rest with the superintendent of schools. “That’s his call to make.”
“Fast forward two weeks and we are getting complaints and calls asking why we haven’t cancelled school and sports events. People were saying ‘You have the power to stop the virus but you’re making the choice not to’.”
The following weekend, school officials in neighboring Boyd and Greenup County heeded their health department’s recommendation to use remote learning plans, “Then the calls bombarded us even more,” McGlone said.
“Monday, Jana (McGlone) asked if she could post (on social media) that the Health Department does not have the power to close schools. So, I said ‘Sure’ because I’m sick of hearing it too,” Barker said, noting he again called Tomolonis to advise him of the plan.
“He said he would let Ronnie (Dotson) know. So, I told Jana ‘Go ahead’.”
“I will admit I should have called Ronnie. I should have called him personally.”
McGlone and Barker also admit their own frustration levels are elevated, as the pandemic has caused them to work seven days a week with considerable overtime – starting back in March for Barker and June for McGlone.
Barker said the school superintendent saw the health department’s social media post and called him, “mad – hurt feelings.”
“Ryan denied the fact I told him. (Environmentalist) Henry Sturgill witnessed that call. I do admit that I did not follow up with an email. I failed in the communication end of it.
“Ronnie said if I removed the post he would discuss it with the board,” Barker said, noting school officials made their announcement about school closings within a few hours. “He called me back and said ‘Everything’s closed’.”
Tomolonis later called and asked if health department officials could post a statement about “the miscommunication,” although the school superintendent released a statement of his own before they were able to do so.
“I did not respond. I have no desire to engage in a pissing match. I have learned a valuable lesson,” Barker said.
Barker and McGlone confirmed they continue to have excellent working relationships with staff at every school in Carter County.
“Our ultimate goal here at the health department is to protect our public. We don’t to fight with anyone,” McGlone concluded. “Wear your mask. We just want to keep our community healthy.”
Barker said the decision to continue remote learning or return to in-person classes will be evaluated and communicated to school officials on a week-to-week basis
Story by TIM PRESTON
Carter County Post