LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Days after abruptly adjourning their regularly scheduled board meeting as tensions over school resource officers flared, members of the Jefferson County Board of Education approved new COVID-19 testing programs to reduce quarantines and require those in extracurricular activities to test negative before they can participate.
The Jefferson County Board of Education unanimously voted to create the “test-to-stay” and “test-to-play” programs, $200 vaccine incentives and hourly pay bumps for classified staff who take instructional duties during a special board meeting Thursday.
Those items were on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting, which was derailed during public comment period as supporters and opponents of bringing school resource officers back into JCPS schools drew raucous cheers and jeers. A five-minute recess by the board eventually led to an early adjournment after Central High School’s auditorium was cleared and dozens of those against bringing officers back into schools continued voicing their opposition.
Thursday’s abbreviated board agenda did not include a public comment period, and all seven board members participated remotely as JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and other members of his administration presented items at VanHoose Education Center.
Pollio said the events that led to the abrupt ending to Tuesday's board meeting were "unfortunate."
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed federal authorities this week to address the "disturbing spike" of threats and harassment aimed at school board members and educators throughout the country, according to reports.
Pollio believes recent outbursts at JCPS meetings reflect those frustrated about current events and societal developments, "and a school board is the place that is open for the public to come and give comment," he said.
"The concern for us, obviously, is when you have opposition, two different groups that oppose an issue at the same board meeting, it becomes very challenging to do our business as well, and that's the most important part of the meeting," he said.
"We need input from family, from stakeholders, from citizens, but we also have business to do, which is what we did today, so we're going to have to figure out moving forward how we do this in an efficient way so that we can accomplish the business that's so important for our schools and students."
School resource officers were not on Tuesday’s agenda, but talk of creating of an internal school security force at JCPS has reemerged. Louisville Metro Police Chief Erika Shields has pushed for the district to hire its own team of school officers in the aftermath of a deadly drive-by shooting at a bus stop that killed 16-year-old Eastern High School student Tyree Smith and injured two other students.
Pollio, who has said his administration was close to recommending a school security officer plan until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, has criticized those using Smith’s death as a catalyst to call for school resource officers in the district. Such officers have not been in JCPS schools since the start of the 2019-20 school year, when the Louisville Metro pulled 17 LMPD officers from buildings and the school board did not approve contracts with other law enforcement agencies for 11 more officers.
Pollio says he plans to continue discussions with the school board about creating a school security force and is in talks with the city about opportunities to collaborate on school safety.
"Of all the issues that I have been faced with, that we have been faced with over the past two to three years, this may be the most intense of them all," he said. "... Our board will have the final decision."
The “test-to-stay” program is voluntary for students and employees who have not taken COVID-19 vaccines, which are available for anyone 12 and older, and will begin Oct. 17, Pollio said. The program’s goals, according to the district, include minimizing absences related to COVID-19 quarantines and lessening the burden of quarantines on students, families and staff.
Quarantines among students and staff have had "major" impacts on JCPS operations, Pollio said.
"Our goal is to ensure as many students and staff have in-person school and work as possible," he told the board.
The district’s “test-to-stay” program allows asymptomatic students and staff to undergo daily COVID-19 testing for seven days after possible exposure to someone diagnosed with the coronavirus rather than the 10 days in quarantine currently required after such exposures.
Participants in the JCPS “test-to-stay” program must test negative for COVID-19 before they attend school, participate in extracurricular activities or ride school buses following close contacts with anyone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. Lawmakers directed the Kentucky Department for Public Health to develop a model “test-to-stay” plan for schools to consider implementing as part of a new state law passed in this year’s special legislative session.
COVID-19 tests will be provided free at district middle schools, high schools and other locations Sundays through Thursdays, and participants can obtain tests through medical providers at their own expense.
Students and staff who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and those who have been infected within the previous 90 days do not have to quarantine unless they have symptoms or have been ordered to quarantine by health professionals.
The similar “test-to-play” program requires students who participate in sports and other extracurricular activities to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing at their schools and test negative for the coronavirus before they can participate starting Nov. 1.
If students miss regular testing dates at their schools, they can get tested at one of the district’s other testing locations after school.
The district's "test-to-play" program has drawn more apprehension than the voluntary "test-to-stay" plan, Pollio said after Thursday's meeting.
Wasting time and money are two of the most popular points of contention that some have with the "test-to-play" model, he said, noting that the district is using state and federal grants to implement and expand COVID-19 testing.
"It's critical, I think, for student success to have these opportunities, and so we want to stay in those activities as well," he said. "Playing games, practices not having to cancel, not having to forfeit games, not having to end the winter season because we're indoors."
Some families of JCPS athletes approve of the requirement in hopes that it will allow kids to have a fuller season this year.
"I've been wanting to see my brother play for so long, and it's been almost two years," said Jermaine Jackson, who trains with his younger brother Karmelo, a basketball player at Butler High School. "He just wants to be out there and play."
Board member James Craig, who represents District 3, said he did not have "any tolerance anymore" for parents opposed to having their children tested regularly for COVID-19.
"I don't understand why you don't care if they might be positive or why you don't care that they may be spreading it," he said. "But I appreciate the goodwill of everyone on this board when we committed to ensuring that we are stopping the spread when others don't."
The board approved accepting and matching the Kentucky Department of Education’s $100 per employee vaccine incentive to give JCPS employees who have been vaccinated $200 by Dec. 1. Eligible employees will receive payments through regular payroll by Jan. 22.
The JCPS board also voted to temporarily bump the hourly rate for classified staff by $6 for every hour they perform instructional duties. Senate Bill 1, passed in special session this year, gives districts flexibility to allow classified staff to lead instruction without supervision from certified teachers.
The JCPS pay increase will be in place as long as such staffing flexibility continues.
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