LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Every year since becoming superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, Marty Pollio's schedules have been packed with school visits to welcome students and staff back for new school years.
But his day Tuesday began at the VanHoose Education Center, where he and other JCPS administrators spoke to local media outlets about the start of an unprecedented school year that's beginning virtually for at least the next six weeks for more than 97,000 students.
Tuesday was "bittersweet" for Pollio, a former principal and teacher at JCPS who enjoys the enthusiasm that typically comes with the first day of school.
"I miss that today. I really do," he said. "We've tried to build the energy and excitement as much as we possibly can for staff and students to make them feel like we're going back to school, but we know it's not quite the same. We just can't wait to get them back in school."
Renee Murphy, chief of communications and community relations with the district, said the typical first-day issues were replaced by others.
"Typically, on the first day of school, we are very concerned about transportation," she said. "The big issue was about passwords and log-ins and getting online virtually."
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Kentucky's largest school district and most others across the state to begin the year with distance learning programs rather than traditional classroom instruction.
It's unclear at this point when JCPS will begin transitioning students back to schools. The district is planning for six-week increments of its nontraditional instruction program, dubbed "NTI 2.0," meaning the earliest JCPS classrooms can reopen will be early October.
Gov. Andy Beshear has urged school districts to delay reopening their classrooms until at least Sept. 28 given the recent escalation of COVID-19 cases in Kentucky, which he says appear to have hit a high plateau.
Some, such as Hardin County Schools, have decided to ignore Beshear's recommendation and offer in-person instruction as an option for families to start the 2020-21 school year.
Green County Schools, a district that also decided to reopen its classrooms, announced Friday that it would transition to remote learning for two weeks given the local coronavirus caseload and because a staff member at Green County High School tested positive for COVID-19.
The state released a spreadsheet of COVID-19 cases in K-12 and postsecondary schools throughout the state on Monday as part of its daily coronavirus reporting. That data shows 50 active COVID-19 cases among students and 21 active cases among school staff.
Pollio isn't sure when JCPS students will be allowed back inside classrooms, though he said he hopes that comes before the district's Christmas break begins Dec. 21.
"We cannot predict three weeks from now what it's going to be like, much less three months from now," he said Tuesday. "… It's very difficult to say what the reality is going to be like in three months. I remain optimistic that we're going to get our kids back in school."
Pollio believes resuming fall athletics will give students and staff time to practice public health guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in Kentucky's "Healthy at School" guidance.
The Jefferson County Board of Education, which unanimously voted to begin the 2020-21 school year with distance learning, approved a phased-in start to the fall sports season on a 5-2 vote Monday.
"If we can do that successfully, I believe we can get back to school quicker," Pollio said of teams following public health guidance as competition begins.
For now, JCPS is forging ahead with its "NTI 2.0" platform that district leaders believe will provide a better, more cohesive learning experience for students and families.
Teachers will be expected to provide more live instruction for those students with computer and internet access at their homes, a gap JCPS hoped to bridge by providing Chromebooks and data hotspots to families that need them.
"We want them to have opportunities to talk with their classmates as well as with their teachers, and teachers are going to be looking for that direct contact," Chief Academic Officer Carmen Coleman said Tuesday.
"They're also going to be looking for students turning in their work for feedback, so multiple ways to know if students are really engaging."
The district purchased 30,000 Chromebooks and 10,000 hotspots with unlimited data with its share of federal COVID-19 relief funding.
Kermit Belcher, chief information officer for JCPS, said the district has received about 36,000 requests for Chromebooks and will ultimately distribute about 60,000 devices when counting the more than 23,000 Chromebooks handed out for nontraditional instruction in the spring.
While JCPS hasn't opened any of its own learning hubs to start the school year, Pollio said to expect those to come in about two weeks thanks to the district's partnership with Evolve502. District officials have previously said those centers will be available by invitation for students that need academic help, services and therapies provided by school personnel, and internet access.
"We're working to make sure our substitute teachers have opportunities to work in these learning hubs if they choose to," Pollio said, adding that he expects assistance from churches, community centers and other organizations as the district opens its learning centers. "… It's a true community partnership."
As for when JCPS students will be allowed back inside schools, Pollio says he's going to rely on state and local health officials to determine when it's safe to reopen classes.
He noted that while the state's COVID-19 testing positivity rate has fallen below 5% in recent days, Jefferson County's positivity rate is nearly twice that at 9.2%.
"I'd really encourage families to make sure we follow these guidelines," Pollio said. "The more people wear masks and follow social distancing, the quicker we'll get back to school."
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