At least some students in the Owensboro Catholic Schools district will return to their classrooms on Monday, a decision made possible earlier this week when a judge struck down Gov. Andy Beshear’s order halting all in-person instruction at both public and private schools.

The OCS decision comes after a federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Gov. Andy Beshear’s order halting in-person instruction at public and private schools harmed religious schools’ free exercise of religion. The ruling opens the door for private religious schools to resume in-person instruction, although the ruling is being appealed by Beshear’s office.

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, OCS Chief Administrative Officer Keith Osborne said students in kindergarten through sixth grade will return to the classroom on Monday if their parents choose to send them. Families that wish to continue with virtual learning instead of returning to in-person instruction may do so, the statement says.

The current plan is for OCS students in grades 7-12 to return to the classroom on Dec. 7, if conditions allow, and a final decision will be made on that next week. Until then, those students will remain on virtual instruction.

“We are monitoring the behaviors of our own students and families, and we believe this is our safest option right now for our faculty, staff, parents and students,” Osborne said in his statement. “We are taking this one step at a time and will make any changes we need to along the way.”

“Safety for staff and students remains paramount, so we are going to assess the situation Wednesday or Thursday to see if we think we can safely bring them back to school the following week,” Osborne said in the statement. “But that will depend on the number of positive test cases and quarantines.

“We want to make sure that we bring students back into the safest possible educational environment. In the meantime, we are very pleased with the way our distance learning is performing with middle school and high school students,” Osborne said.

In a virtual meeting with public school superintendents and Daviess County Judge-Executive Al Mattingly last week before Beshear’s order, Catholic schools Superintendent David Kessler said the district had been able to remain open by distancing students and taking precautions.

“This is the only time being small helps us a little bit,” Kessler said.

The district has had students quarantined, he said, but, “we have been able to work through those quarantines. “

The school district had not experienced person to person transmission of the coronavirus in the schools, Kessler said.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled in favor of Danville Christian Academy, which sued Beshear after the state ordered all private and public schools to go to all-virtual learning in response to the pandemic. The school, which was joined by Heritage Christian School in Owensboro and several other schools across the state, argued Beshear’s order violated the schools’ constitutional right of free exercise of religion.

In his ruling, Van Tatenhove blocked Beshear’s office from enforcing his executive order and wrote that the executive order, like an order issued this spring that prevented in-person church services, allows other forms of activity to continue, but not religious school attendance.

The executive order allows “preschools, colleges, and universities across the Commonwealth (to) remain open so long as they follow appropriate social distancing requirements,” Van Tatenhove wrote. “This executive order permits other, similarly situated groups and institutions to continue meeting while providing a blanket ban on in-person instruction for K-12 schools.“

Van Tatenhove wrote while COVID-19 is very contagious, “evidence that the risk of contagion is heightened in a religious setting any more than a secular setting, or in K-12 schools as opposed to preschools, universities or colleges, is lacking.”

While COVID-19 can spread in schools, “that is true of other public settings,” Van Tatenhove wrote, and Beshear’s order seems to run counter to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The ruling quotes CDC Director Robert Redford, who said, “for kids K-12, one of the safest places they can be, from our perspective, is to remain in school.”

Van Tatenhove wrote: “If social distancing is good enough for offices, colleges and universities within the Commonwealth, it is good enough for religious private K-12 schools that benefit from constitutional protection.”

Osborne said “our experience and data support going back to school especially at the elementary level,” and forcing caregivers of elementary age children to child care “could do more to increase transmissions” of the coronavirus. Elementary age children seem less likely to come into contact with the coronavirus than other students, Oborne said in his statement.

“Nearly all the challenges we have faced in our system were with the older students because they have more of a social life over the weekends and on holidays,” Osborne said.

Osborne said OCS supports Beshear’s efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and the district could both support that effort while bringing students back to school safely. District officials also asked OCS parents to keep taking precautions to prevent their children from contracting the virus.

“As parents, we ask you to continue to do everything you can to mitigate the spread of the virus and help keep our children and schools safe,” Osborne said.

Officials with Whitesville Trinity High School, St. Mary of the Woods School and Heritage Christian School could not be reached on Friday.

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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