Cheser leads FTIS district through COVID-19


Superintendent Karen Cheser has led the Fort Thomas Independent School District through the COVID-19 pandemic.

     Sitting in a meeting with five school board members, being watched by a few in-person viewers and 2,000 viewers on YouTube is Dr. Karen Cheser, the Fort Thomas Independent Schools superintendent. She is faced with the task of addressing the district about how she plans to keep education going through COVID-19. She goes through her presentation trying to give all the information she can to help parents, students, and staff feel informed and comfortable with what will be going on. She explains the decisions she made, how she made them, and what to look forward to in the future.

      At the end of her presentation, she reassures viewers by saying, “This is a decision that definitely impacts our families. It impacts our staff, our teachers, our students, but it’s all meant to be for the benefit of our children.”

      Cheser is in her fourth year of her role as the FTIS superintendent. She has had plenty of experience from being an assistant superintendent, a principal, a teacher, a coach, an adjunct professor, and a consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education. She brings a lot of experience and knowledge to our district.

      “I find her to be entirely approachable, incredibly kind and generous, and superiorly courageous in her role,” said assistant superintendent Bill Bradford.“She is a role model for all.  I value her leadership and highly respect her professionalism and empathy for others.” 

      Cheser is in charge of 373 other staff members and 3,138 students in five different schools; this is not an easy job. She has to oversee the school district, make important decisions, and problem solve, all with the pressure of impacting the future of students on her shoulders. With the interruption of COVID-19, her job got increasingly more difficult. She has had to find ways to keep staff and students healthy, while still giving students the best education she can give them.

      “Being a superintendent is a 24/7 job [normally] However, COVID-19 has definitely added pressure and stress, not only because of the concern for others but because of the extraordinary measures we have had to take to get our schools ready to return to school,” Cheser explained.

      This all started back in March when Cheser made the decision to have the schools go to non-traditional instruction (NTI). While this wasn’t an easy decision, the board didn’t have much of a choice. They didn’t have all of the information that they do now to make a safe plan for coming back to school. However, now that the board has data and information about COVID-19 and about the harm of not being in school, they could make a more informed decision.

      “I’ve heard this quote before that is ‘When you know better, you do better’ and so what we hope you’ll learn tonight is that as we have learned more information, as we know more about what our current situation is, as we know more about decision making at the state level, we know we have to do something,” Cheser said in the board meeting on September 2. 

     In her presentation, she pointed out the impact on students’ mental health, anxiety, and social-emotional development. Because of this, she and her team knew that they had to get kids back at school.

      “So many district and school leaders and staff have worked tirelessly to make our schools safe and still engaging.  From thermal scanners to adding trailers, to new schedules to thousands of gallons of sanitizer, it has been an extreme team effort to meet all of the KY Healthy at School guidelines so that we can safely return to school,” said Cheser. 

       After many hours of constant problem solving, she and her team had a plan for coming back to school, which was to be put in place on August 26 when students would come back to school. However, the plan was interrupted on August 10 when Governor Andy Beshear advised that schools stay in NTI for six more weeks.

       With this, the school board had a meeting that day and came up with a new calendar, in order to give teachers time to prepare lessons, now that they were going to be doing NTI. They originally thought that if they had not followed the order, they would lose liability and their insurance would be taken away. However, many school districts were not following these recommendations, and they learned that they could get permission to come back sooner if they had a meeting with Kentucky’s interim education commissioner, Kevin C. Brown. In result, on August 14, the board had a meeting with Brown and other staff members of the Kentucky Department of Education. They explained what they wanted to do and how they were going to do it and then got approved to go back early.

      Cheser’s work has paid off. Students are now back at school and no major issues have occurred. In fact, many school districts have looked at Fort Thomas School’s Healthy at School website as an example of what they should do. Cheser appreciates the positivity from staff and students, and she continues to do her part in helping the school district by tracking data, communicating with government and health officials, and preparing for possible situations that could come up.