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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Archdiocese of Louisville has recommended that local Catholic schools transition to distance learning starting Nov. 23 through the rest of 2020 as COVID-19 cases continue to escalate in Jefferson County.

Superintendent Leisa Schulz informed school leaders of the Archdiocese's updated guidance on Friday, according to correspondence obtained by WDRB News. She cited COVID-19 cases reported by schools and the resulting quarantines of students, teachers and staff as the basis for the Archdiocese's recommendation in her message to Catholic school leaders.

Local Catholic schools have offered both in-person and virtual learning options for families during the 2020-21 school year while classrooms at Jefferson County Public Schools have remained closed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

"The health department is overwhelmed with cases," Schulz wrote in an email obtained by WDRB News. "While our schools remain safe, we anticipate our challenges will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and our schools' abilities to straddle both 'in-person' and remote learning will become increasingly difficult.

"It is appropriate for us to temporarily make this pivot as a mitigation measure that will allow us to return to in-person instruction in early January 2021," she said. "Please keep all in our families and communities who are dealing with Covid-19 in your prayers."

The recommendation is an expansion of "holiday buffers" suggested by the Archdiocese, which originally included the week of Thanksgiving and the first week of January. The expanded recommendation now includes Dec. 1 through Dec. 18 as potential remote learning days.

Schulz told WDRB news that more students and staff at Archdiocese schools have contracted COVID-19 recently, though the school system's total caseload is "relatively low" compared to its size.

The extra time learning from home during the holiday season will also provide a "viable alternative" to straddling between in-person and virtual instruction, she said.

The Archdiocese has reported 43 new COVID-19 cases among students and 13 new cases among school staff so far this week, with 227 students and 29 school employees in quarantine this week, according to data published on the state's coronavirus dashboard for schools.

"We thought this offered an excellent form of instruction, and our teachers and our parents would have the opportunity to prepare for that," Schulz said in an interview, noting that families may travel for the holidays and come into contact with people who have COVID-19.

"Again, we don't see this as forever and ever. We see this as an opportunity to deal with the current challenges that we're facing and entering into the Thanksgiving and Christmas season, where we anticipate that the numbers could continue to be high or go higher."

Staffing, particularly finding substitutes to cover for those who are absent, has been an issue for the Archdiocese and other school systems that offer classroom instruction.

One of the Archdiocese's COVID-19 mitigation strategies has been to divide students into groups within their classrooms, which requires more staff and puts a greater emphasis on finding substitutes if employees take time off, Schulz said.

"That's basically what we're finding with some of the quarantine situations," she told WDRB News. "... When we quarantine and have that number of people out of a building and you've got teachers that may be out and students that may be in or students that are out and teachers that are in, it becomes much more challenging."

Some school leaders have already heeded the Archdiocese's recommendation and have scheduled distance learning through Jan. 8, according to letters obtained by WDRB News.

Schulz said she was not sure how many schools would follow the Archdiocese's recommendation, though she believed the initial suggestion for "holiday buffers" was "very well received" as an option for school leaders.

"We ned some time and opportunity to find out what positive cases might have come up over Thanksgiving or over Christmas," she said.

She noted that local Catholic schools have delivered 14 weeks of instruction since schools reopened in August and that teachers have developed "expertise" in delivering both in-person and virtual instruction.

"Consequently, we believe our schools have proven they can provide robust remote learning experiences for our students as evidenced by the growth our students have shown on their assessments this fall," she said in her correspondence to Catholic school leaders.

"We have proven that we can provide good, quality in-person instruction and good, quality remote learning," she said during Friday's interview.

Jefferson County remains in the "red zone" of Kentucky's COVID-19 incidence rate map with 52.7 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents each day based on a seven-day rolling average as of Friday.

State health officials have urged schools in "red" counties to transition to remote learning until local COVID-19 caseloads improve.

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