LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Jefferson County Board of Education approved Thursday an amended version of Superintendent Marty Pollio’s plan to resume in-person instruction at Kentucky’s largest school district.
The board voted 4-3 on the district’s reopening strategy, which now includes a hybrid schedule for elementary schools for most students while special needs students will be back in elementary classrooms five days a week. Board member James Craig, who represents District 3, offered the late change during Thursday’s meeting that was unanimously approved by the panel.
Diane Porter, the board’s chairperson who represents District 1; Chris Kolb, the board’s vice chairperson who represents District 2; and Corrie Shull, who represents District 6, voted against the district’s reopening plan.
"I'm excited that we're going back to school," Pollio said during a news conference after the board's vote.
Kindergarten through second grade students will return March 17 followed by those in third through fifth grades on March 18. Most students in elementary schools will learn in-person two days a week and participate in remote instruction three days a week on a similar schedule as middle and high schools, according to the approved reopening plan.
Pollio had originally recommended offering in-person instruction for elementary students five days a week.
"I wanted elementary students in five days a week," he said during the news conference. "That was my decision and that was my recommendation, but I can also understand the hybrid model and the need to want to have less kids in the school."
Preschool classrooms are slated to reopen March 22 in the plan while middle and high schools begin operating on hybrid schedules April 5, immediately after spring break.
Middle and high school students with last names starting with A-K will be in-person on Mondays and Tuesday and L-Z will be back in classrooms on Thursdays and Fridays. Learning for middle and high school students will be remotely on Wednesdays.
JCPS has not offered in-person instruction since March 2020 in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The district expects about 60% of students will return to schools once in-person instruction resumes with the remaining 40% attending its virtual academy, according to the results of an ongoing family survey.
While medical professionals have said JCPS can safely operate in-person instruction with a combination of staff vaccinations against COVID-19 and mitigation steps, some board members have expressed reservations about the district’s ability to adhere to public health guidance, particularly social distancing.
Such concerns were reiterated during Tuesday’s meeting.
“At many points, this plan tries very hard to keep you safe,” Kolb said.
“At many other points, this plan looks for the minimum we are legally required to do and fails to honor the intent of safety guidelines from the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and (the Kentucky Department of Education). At many points, this plan makes compromises to the health and safety of students, staff and families and the community where compromises could have been avoided.”
Board member Linda Duncan, however, said her concerns about reopening were allayed after hearing from those medical professionals. She also cited declining COVID-19 transmission rates in Jefferson County in voicing her support for the district’s reopening plan.
“We're supposed to make a decision about whether we think we can safely bring kids back together, and at this point, I feel that I am ready to do that,” she said.
Shull cited concerns that the district was not prioritizing its most vulnerable students, whose learning and families have been disproportionately impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Existing inequities at JCPS have been brought into sharper focus because of the pandemic, he said.
“If they are not central to the plan for reopening, we are missing the mark,” Shull said. “I hope that we will use this opportunity to dare to believe that this district can seize this opportunity and fully and comprehensively address our deep equity issues, and if we fail to do that now, we are failing the majority of students in this district.”
Board member Sarah McIntosh, who represents District 7, said she believed that schools should be open to provide services for students who need them.
“The students who are in most need of services are right now the ones who are not receiving them,” she said.
Kolb, who shared concerns about inequities once JCPS reopens, offered a motion that passed unanimously directing Pollio and district administration to develop a comprehensive plan to address such issues.
"Racial equity is a commitment for our district, so I take their charge," he said. "We'll take that feedback, and we'll put together a great plan."
The board's decision comes amid increasing pressure from Frankfort to reopen classrooms at JCPS.
Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order Tuesday encouraging school districts to offer some form of in-person instruction by March 1 or once school employees are vaccinated against COVID-19. Medical professionals told the board later Tuesday that they believed the district could safely reopen classrooms with a combination of staff vaccinations and mitigation steps like masking and social distancing.
On Wednesday, Kentucky’s House of Representatives passed a bill requiring school districts to reopen classrooms by March 29 or get denied extra nontraditional instruction dates unless warranted by high rate of COVID-19 transmission in their counties.
House Bill 208, which is in the Senate, also stipulates that school districts must commit 80% of instruction time to in-person learning for at least 40% of its students for the added remote learning flexibility.
"If this bill is signed by the governor, if this bill becomes law, we have no other choice but to offer services on a hybrid plan to our students by the end of the month," Craig said.
Some questions remain unresolved, such as whether JCPS can hire enough bus drivers and custodians to cover routes and shifts.
The district is about 100 employees short in both categories, though Chief Operations Officer Chris Perkins said staffing agencies have potentially filled 80 of those custodian positions. Those candidates have not been fully cleared to work at JCPS, he said.
"I'm confident that we'll be able to get the job done," Pollio said.
Porter said she continues to field questions about buses, sanitation and ventilation from within her district. Some of her schools are not prepared yet to bring students back during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, adding that she planned to visit sites personally to observe how operations have changed in light of the coronavirus "when it's safe."
She has taken calls from parents anxious about sending their children back and still has questions about how JCPS will help students in her district academically once in-person instruction resumes.
"It is my responsibility to continue to ask the questions for the good of the students in District 1, so I did what I had to do," Porter told reporters during a news conference after Thursday's meeting. "I was elected, and I take every job seriously."
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