LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Two members of the Jefferson County Board of Education said they want Kentucky’s largest school district to continue its distance learning plan as Superintendent Marty Pollio prepares his recommendation on whether to reopen schools for next week’s board meeting.
Board members Chris Brady, who represents District 7, and Linda Duncan, who represents District 5, said Tuesday that they will not be completely comfortable reopening Jefferson County Public Schools classrooms to students and staff until a COVID-19 vaccine is released or far in development.
“I’m not ready,” Duncan said Tuesday. “I think people need to just kind of get some perspective here and understand these are life-and-death decisions.”
She and other board members interviewed by WDRB News raised a number of issues that need to be resolved before they support reopening schools, such as ensuring the district can follow public health guidelines on transporting students and enforce new requirements inside school buildings.
Pollio has said he will present his recommendation on whether to continue nontraditional instruction at JCPS or reopen classrooms during the board’s Sept. 29 meeting, which will mark the start of the sixth week of distance learning. The board voted in July to begin the 2020-21 school year with at least six weeks of remote instruction on Aug. 25.
He has declined to say exactly what he will recommend to the board next week. Pollio said during an unrelated news conference Tuesday that three factors will drive his recommendation: data on local COVID-19 cases, whether employees are comfortable returning to schools and whether the district can safely provide instruction inside classrooms during the global pandemic.
“There’s very few issues where I’ve seen such a split and divide with equal amount of communications on both sides,” Pollio said. “Clearly we want to get kids back to school, and there is a desire for many people to get kids back in school, including me.”
Other school systems in the U.S. have seen staff members die of COVID-19, making a decision to reopen classrooms to nearly 100,000 students even tougher, he said. Thousands of students and staff are in high-risk medical categories, he added.
“That’s a heavy burden to have to accept,” Pollio said.
The state’s new color-coded map tracking COVID-19 cases by county combined with the local testing positivity rate will be key metrics in determining when JCPS can safely reopen schools, he said.
Jefferson County currently averages 15.2 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents per day based on a seven-day average and has a testing positivity rate of 4.8% based on a two-week rolling average, according to state and local data.
Counties colored orange in Kentucky’s new mapping system have daily COVID-19 cases of between 10 and 25 per 100,000 residents. Schools in those counties should consider transitioning to remote learning, according to state guidance.
Pollio said local COVID-19 incidence rates must steadily decline toward the yellow phase, when daily COVID-19 cases average between one and 10 per 100,000 residents, before he suggests reopening schools.
“Our goal is to be in the yellow,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that’s an absolute, mandatory decision for our board, but it definitely has to at least be downward trending and heading towards that yellow color code.”
Brady said he would be surprised if Pollio recommended reopening schools during next week’s board meeting, noting the superintendent’s desire to see regular declines in daily COVID-19 cases based on the new state data.
“Right now, we’re not at that point,” Brady said.
“This is a community issue,” he said. “It isn’t just the responsibility of the school board.”
COVID-19 will affect JCPS operations “for a long time,” he said, adding that families “shouldn’t be completely surprised if we remain in NTI for the rest of the year” if vaccine development is slow and people do not follow public health guidance to help mitigate coronavirus spread.
Diane Porter, the board’s chairwoman who represents District 1, and James Craig, who represents District 3, said they wanted to hear Pollio’s presentation before finalizing their votes.
“We don’t have the reopening plan at this point, so I cannot tell you what my vote will be,” Porter said. “… I am confident that we can do the work. We need to know what the work will look like so that it will help parents better understand how we’re moving forward.”
Board members Chris Kolb, Corrie Shull and Joe Marshall did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In a Sept. 9 statement, Kolb indicated that he likely would not support reopening JCPS classrooms until Jefferson County's COVID-19 testing positivity rate was consistently below 5%.
"While the rate of COVID-19 transmission is so high I simply cannot ask teachers to choose between doing their jobs on the one hand and risking their own health and that of their families on the other," Kolb, the board's vice chairman, said in his statement.
Porter and other board members say they want more details on how JCPS will resume classroom instruction during COVID-19 if that is included in Pollio’s Sept. 29 recommendation.
“The board needs to be assured by the administration that they can implement that plan safely,” Craig said. “From the public health perspective, I’ve wanted to see Louisville in the yellow for a solid two weeks before we went back, and I think I personally would feel safest making sure that Dr. Pollio has everything he needs ready to open the school buildings almost like a light switch.”
While he wants to see Jefferson County in the state’s yellow COVID-19 metric for two weeks before reopening classrooms, Craig says he will not outright reject a different recommendation from Pollio.
“I want to give him and his administration as much leeway as possible,” he said.
Board members interviewed by WDRB News said transportation was another area of interest, particularly how many students would be allowed to board and how staff would sanitize surfaces between routes.
Some buses in Craig’s district must make two runs each morning and afternoon. On some of those routes, three students share a single seat, he said.
“I don’t know how we’re going to sanitize buses between the runs. Distancing on the buses is absolutely impossible, so the only mitigation factors available to us that we’ve discussed with public health officials are masking and temperature checks,” Craig said, noting that drivers could not feasibly conduct temperature checks while transporting students.
Guidance from the Kentucky Department of Education suggests assigning bus monitors to conduct temperature checks on students before they board buses or having families self-monitor their children’s temperatures before sending them to bus stops. State guidance also requires districts to assign seats for bus riders.
Student transportation has been a critical factor for other urban school systems in their reopening plans, many of which called for remote instruction to begin 2020-21, Pollio said.
“We believe we can do it once it’s safe to go back, but it is definitely a major challenge for us,” Pollio said of transporting JCPS students to and from schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a parent, Pollio says he understands families’ struggles with nontraditional instruction while JCPS classrooms remain closed, particularly for those with younger children and students with special needs.
But as an administrator, he says he must prioritize the health of the district’s students and staff in any reopening recommendation.
“Someone could lose their life as a result of a decision,” he said. “It’s a tough balance and keeps you up at night.”
Copyright 2020 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.