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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Leaders at Jefferson County Public Schools, where classrooms have been closed since the beginning days of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, are waiting for Gov. Andy Beshear’s guidance on how schools in counties hit hardest by the coronavirus can resume in-person instruction as they consider when to reopen schools.

Beshear, who ordered public and private schools throughout Kentucky to close amid a third escalation of coronavirus infections, has said he expects to reveal his administration’s guidelines for some type of in-person instruction starting Jan. 4 for “red zone” counties in the state’s COVID-19 transmission map as early as next week. Some elementary schools could reopen Monday if their counties were no longer in the state’s “red zone.”

The governor told WDRB News on Wednesday that his administration is exploring ways to ensure schools can offer all courses virtually for students who have health issues and protect school workers who are immunocompromised.

“Previously, some schools have said we'll have a virtual option but not for any AP classes,” Beshear said. “You can't do that to that student who might be immunocompromised and is in those classes.

“We've lost, in the very least, a teacher, an attendance clerk, a custodian and multiple bus drivers,” he said. “We know that this can and does spread inside those buildings, so we need to make sure the most vulnerable have options and that there are real protections for our educators.”

Jefferson County has been among those where daily COVID-19 cases exceed 25 per 100,000 residents based on a seven-day rolling average for months, placing it and most other Kentucky counties squarely in the state’s highest category for coronavirus spread. As of Tuesday, the county’s COVID-19 incidence rate was 62.2.

Renee Murphy, communications director for JCPS, said district leaders are waiting to see details of Beshear’s incoming guidance and what that will mean for schools.

“This has been a fluid situation, and things have changed and progressed,” she told WDRB News on Wednesday.

Schools have already submitted their reopening plans to the district’s central office, and JCPS families have been asked to pick between sending their children back to classrooms once they reopen or continuing remote instruction.

Eighty-six percent of district families have responded so far, with 59% indicating they want in-person learning for their children and 41% planning to enroll their kids in the JCPS virtual academy, according to district data.

Whether leaders of JCPS schools will need to revise their reopening plans – if the district opts to reopen classrooms while Jefferson County remains red – remains to be seen.

JCPS has been “very nimble” in dealing with learning disruptions caused by COVID-19, Murphy said, noting the district’s quick transition to remote instruction in the closing months of the 2019-20 school year. The district was not part of the Kentucky Department of Education’s nontraditional instruction program until then and had to develop plans for virtual learning in a matter of weeks.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio has stressed the need to be flexible with families and within the district during remote instruction so JCPS can “pivot and shift” as needed in response to the pandemic, Murphy said.

“We’ll be ready to adapt and to adjust, and we’ll look to that guidance to see what’s going to be coming out from the state,” she said.

Members of the Jefferson County Board of Education have said local coronavirus caseloads need to be out of the state’s “red zone” and trending downward before they consider allowing students, teachers and staff back inside schools, with some suggesting that the district should wait until COVID-19 vaccines are distributed before offering classroom instruction.

Teachers and other JCPS staff also urged caution as the district developed its reopening strategies, with about two-thirds of the 4,000 respondents to a Jefferson County Teachers Association survey released in July supporting remote instruction to start the 2020-21 school year.

JCTA President Brent McKim believes the results would be even more lopsided in favor of continuing distance learning if teachers were polled now given how much worse Jefferson County’s COVID-19 caseload is now compared to the summer.

McKim said JCPS should wait until staff members can get a coronavirus vaccine, if they want it, before resuming classroom instruction unless Jefferson County’s COVID-19 caseload improves greatly. Even then, accommodations should be made for those with health concerns, he said.

Beshear has said he wants educators to be among the first to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and limited shipments are expected to arrive in Kentucky in the coming weeks.

“We believe that the vaccine should be a priority to get to teachers as soon as possible because that would give us the ability to resume in-person sooner even without the numbers necessarily having to be as positive as they might otherwise be,” McKim said.

Details of Beshear’s plan for schools to offer some form of classroom instruction even if they are in “red” counties are still being worked out.

The Kentucky Department of Education has been gathering input from school leaders about a potential reopening strategy, Beshear said, noting that Kentucky Board of Education Chairwoman Lu Young has also brought expertise as the former superintendent of Jessamine County Schools.

“We've had multiple conversations with the superintendents themselves and brought them into the vaccine distribution plan here just about a week ago,” Beshear said.

Education Commissioner Jason Glass has asked for input from the state’s education associations, advisory groups and KDE staff on how schools can successfully reopen when their counties are “red,” said Toni Konz Tatman, KDE’s chief communications officer.

“We will be submitting a recommendation to the governor based on those conversations later this week,” she said. “Ultimately, it will be up to the governor to determine what he does next as the Commissioner, the KDE and the state board do not have the formal authority to make the decision.”

Like many JCPS families, teachers are eager to welcome students back into their classrooms “as soon as it’s safe,” McKim said.

“Remote learning is not as good as in-person for many reasons, so we want to be back in-person as soon as we safely can,” he said. “The issue is being able to do it where it’s safe for students, safe for families and safe for the staff in school, and we’re not there yet.”

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