LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Jefferson County Board of Education will vote Thursday on whether to reopen classrooms in Kentucky’s largest school district, Chairperson Diane Porter said Tuesday.
Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio has not offered a formal recommendation for a board vote. District spokespeople did not say whether Pollio would share a recommendation ahead of Thursday's meeting when reached by WDRB News.
The board met in a work session Tuesday to discuss the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health-related issues with representatives of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, University of Louisville and Norton Healthcare.
"The additional 48 hours from tonight will give the board and the community additional time to review and digest tonight's information as well as the other recent information from the legislature, the governor and (the Kentucky Department of Education)," said Porter, who represents District 1, during Tuesday’s meeting.
Pollio has said elementary schools could reopen five days per week by the third week of March while middle and high school operate on a hybrid schedule starting in the first week of April based on teacher and staff COVID-19 vaccinations. The district expects about 60% of its more than 96,000 students will return once classrooms reopen based on the results of a survey of families.
Gov. Andy Beshear on Tuesday issued an executive order recommending schools resume some form of in-person instruction either March 1 or a week after school employees receive their second doses of COVID-19 vaccines. He also announced that the state's color-coded school guidance will be discontinued.
Pollio said his recommendation will adhere to the latest state guidance on school operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Chris Kolb, the board's vice chairperson who represents District 2, said he is not interested in entertaining a reopening recommendation that does not also follow guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jefferson County has a COVID-19 caseload of 213.2 per 100,000 residents over the past week and a testing positivity rate of 9.3%, according to the CDC.
The agency's Feb. 12 guidance calls for schools in counties with caseloads above 100 per 100,000 residents to operate elementary schools on hybrid schedules or otherwise reduce attendance inside schools while maintaining at least 6 feet of social distance.
The CDC recommends virtual learning for middle and high schools at that point unless all COVID-19 mitigation steps can be followed and suspending in-person sports and extracurricular activities.
Kolb, who was one of two board members to vote against resuming winter sports at JCPS previously, said any reopening recommendation that puts students and teachers within 6 feet of each other "is not only insane at this point, it's completely unethical." Pollio said the state "translates" CDC guidelines and incorporates them in its own school guidance, a response Kolb called "not acceptable."
"I have a real problem if we're going to be asked to consider a proposal that we know based on the evidence is more likely to make people sick and lead to more death and dying amongst our staff, students and community," Kolb said, noting that he is one of seven board members.
Medical professionals who spoke with board members Tuesday, however, expressed optimism at the district's ability to offer in-person instruction.
Dr. Jason Smith, chief medical officer for University of Louisville Health, said staff vaccinations combined with COVID-19 mitigation measures are "the best protection that you're going to have."
"We will do everything we can to help you in making sure you're safe and the children are safe in the public school system, but you can do this," Smith said.
Dr. Mark Burns, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Louisville who specializes in infectious diseases, said now "is probably the best time" to resume in-person instruction at JCPS as COVID-19 cases continue to decline locally.
Jefferson County has a coronavirus incidence rate of 24.8 new cases per 100,000 residents based on a seven-day average, just outside Kentucky's "red zone" for COVID-19 transmission.
"I think the key is that everything is going in the right direction, so as long as everyone's doing what's recommended according to the guidelines then I personally feel it only gets better from here," Burns said, noting that other COVID-19 vaccines could be approved for distribution in the coming months.
Some board members asked about social distancing, particularly within elementary schools that could reopen for students every weekday.
Dr. Sarah Moyer, Louisville Metro's chief health strategist, said implementing a hybrid schedule could help create more space between elementary students. Most COVID-19 cases in children have been linked to sleepovers, parties, sports and other social activities where compliance to measures like masking is laxer, she said.
Asked if not maintaining at least 6 feet of social distance should be "a roadblock" to reopening classrooms by board member James Craig, Moyer said the district would see more students quarantined and forced to learn from home than new COVID-19 cases after exposures inside schools if other mitigation steps are followed.
"All those things help, so hopefully not," Moyer said. "As I say there probably will be one, but what we've seen so far is that risk is small."
"All those things mitigate the ability for transmission to occur, so I agree with Dr. Moyer 100%," Burns said.
JCPS is one of five Kentucky school districts that have not reopened classrooms so far in 2021, according to the Kentucky School Boards Association. The state's largest school district has not offered in-person learning since early in the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March.
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