LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson County Public Schools could begin reopening elementary classrooms by the third week of March as teachers and staff are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Superintendent Marty Pollio said Tuesday.
The ultimate reopening decision will rest with the Jefferson County Board of Education, which met Tuesday to continue discussions on the district’s plan to resume in-person instruction.
Pollio did not offer proposed dates to begin classroom instruction at JCPS, but he noted that COVID-19 vaccinations will be complete by the third week of March for elementary school staff and days before spring break begins March 29 for employees in middle and high schools.
"We would not bring them back two or three days before spring break," Pollio said, adding that middle and high schools could reopen the week of April 5.
"We can start to predict what that start date will be that we’ll give to you at another date," he said.
Pollio and other JCPS administrators presented more details of the district’s reopening plan, with elementary schools expected to resume in-person instruction five days per week while middle and high schools operate on hybrid schedules.
Middle and high school students coming back to classrooms will be divided into two groups: students with last names starting with letters A-K and students with last names beginning with L-Z. Students in the first group would go to in-person classes Mondays and Tuesdays, while those in the second group would attend school Thursdays and Fridays, Pollio said.
Students in groups not attending in-person classes would learn from home, and all middle and high school students would learn remotely on Wednesdays under Pollio’s plan. About 60% of students are expected to return to schools once in-person instruction resumes based on the results of a district survey.
Diane Porter, the board’s chairperson who represents District 1, said a vote on resuming in-person instruction at JCPS for the first time since March 2020 will come at a future meeting.
"We are dealing with what may be the most complex issue of our time in public service," she said.
Talks of reopening classrooms at JCPS have intensified in recent weeks as more than 13,000 district teachers, staff and contractors received their initial COVID-19 vaccine doses.
State and local health officials previously told the school board that JCPS could safely resume in-person instruction with a combination of staff vaccinations and mitigation measures taken inside schools, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in updated guidance Friday that staff vaccinations should not be prerequisites for offering in-person instruction.
But those who are fully vaccinated and exposed to someone with COVID-19 are not required to quarantine if they are asymptomatic in the updated CDC guidelines.
"This was one of the most important steps that they took in the guidance for our back-to-school plan," Pollio said.
JCPS has more than 2.6 million adult-sized masks and nearly 2.2 million youth-sized masks plus about 460,000 masks donated for students. Chief Operations Officer Chris Perkins said schools will be provided personal protective equipment initially through back-to-school kits that have already been packaged.
The district will need more bus drivers and custodians to successfully reopen classrooms, however.
Pollio said JCPS has 808 drivers to cover 910 routes, leaving the district more than 100 drivers short. The district could stagger school start times to eliminate at least 150 routes, work with outside contractors for more drivers or recruit retired bus drivers to cover routes, he said.
"We will bring you some of those options as we continue to clarify those, but we’re confident we can meet what we need to do to meet all of our routes," Pollio said.
The district also has 112 custodian vacancies, and Pollio said the district would focus on staffing day crews to ensure buildings are cleaned while students are in school once classrooms reopen.
He expects 55 positions will be filled by outside contractors and 16 will be taken by retired plant operators, and he said other contractors and substitute opportunities for bus drivers could take care of the remaining openings.
"We feel that we will be able to meet all 112 custodial vacancies before we open up school," Pollio said.
He also said he would look into purchasing more internet hotspots with unlimited data through T-Mobile with all 12,000 devices claimed.
"There will be absolutely no equity at all if somebody signs up to go to school with us and they don’t have the ability to sign on without a hotspot," Porter said.
JCPS teachers will get more say in school and district reopening plans. An agreement between the district and the Jefferson County Teachers Association creates numerous reopening committees tasked with reviewing and amending in-person instruction plans, among other provisions.
Pollio said he hoped those committees would be formed by the end of the week and begin meeting as early as next week.
"Are we confident that the work from those committees, at least at the elementary level, will be genuine such that the teachers have buy-in into each individual school’s processes and confidence in our ability to run those schools safely by the week of March 15?" asked board member James Craig, who represents District 3.
"Yes, without a doubt," Pollio said.
The district committed to providing “reasonable and appropriate” accommodations for teachers who live with those most vulnerable to COVID-19.
Jimmy Adams, head of human resources for JCPS, said 1,404 employees have sought work accommodations so far. Employees who do not qualify for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Kentucky Pregnant Workers Act will be asked to complete a special request form for the district’s consideration.
"The numbers are quite a bit more than what they have been in the past," he said. "It actually has created a full-time job for our manager of employee services right now. We’ve actually brought in additional help during this time to assist her."
Asked by board member Corrie Shull, who represents District 6, whether JCPS is pushing to reopen schools to have students in place for standardized K-PREP testing, Pollio said he hoped the incoming secretary of the U.S. Department of Education would grant waivers so states could cancel standardized tests during the 2020-21 school year.
The Kentucky Department of Education indicated it would seek such relief if offered in new guidance on administering K-PREP tests in-person this year.
Pollio said the district only planned to give students diagnostic testing in reading and math "so that we can get a picture of where our students are."
"There will not be accountability with that, but then we can make adjustments based on that to provide them summer learning, get them into our summer programs and really begin to build a plan," he said.
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