LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio says mid-February will be the earliest that Kentucky’s largest school district can reopen classrooms as it develops plans to provide COVID-19 vaccines for teachers and staff.
“I am hopeful that we will be back by mid-February,” he said during an interview with WDRB News.
The Jefferson County Board of Education will ultimately decide when JCPS can offer in-person instruction, and Pollio told the board later Tuesday that reopening in mid-February is a "best-case scenario" that depends on when the district receives and administers COVID-19 vaccines.
"I think a lot of that is out of our hands," Pollio said during the meeting. He estimated that the district would need 10,000 vaccine doses before reopening elementary schools.
The district is working with the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness on a proposal to offer drive-through vaccination events once JCPS receives doses of COVID-19 vaccines, according to Pollio and a presentation he made to the school board Tuesday.
JCPS expects to offer the vaccine booster three weeks after the first set of employees are inoculated, then open elementary schools to select groups of students two weeks later, according to the board presentation. Pollio said the district would focus initially on bringing back students in preschool through third grade in a phased reopening plan.
“Our goal will be to bring back youngest students first,” he told WDRB News.
Gov. Andy Beshear’s office has said to expect the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines for JCPS by the third week of January at the earliest and the first week of February at the latest, Pollio said.
He told school board members that he hoped to give them more clarity on the situation at their Jan. 5 meeting.
"We are not positive at this time that we will have exact dates, an exact amount of doses, but we are hopeful that by that time we can have specific information to provide to you in order to return to school," Pollio said.
Beshear has said school staff will be among the first groups to receive a COVID-19 vaccine after frontline public health workers and residents and employees at long-term care facilities.
Vaccinations against COVID-19 for teachers and staff will be “highly encouraged” but not required based on legal advice, he told WDRB News.
“We’ll be surveying staff soon to see how many are going to get it, but we will be returning shortly after we are able to get the vaccine to our employees,” Pollio said during Tuesday's interview.
Students may be required to get a COVID-19 vaccine, though Pollio says the district will follow guidance from the Kentucky Department of Education on the matter.
"It goes a little bit out of my hand when you start talking about that," he said.
JCPS has suspended in-person instruction since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, and news of the extended wait for a return to classroom learning comes a day after Beshear unveiled his guidance for districts that want to reopen schools in counties with high rates of coronavirus transmission.
Jefferson County has been in the state’s “red zone” for COVID-19 spread since mid-October as incidence rates exceed 25 new daily cases per 100,000 residents based on a seven-day rolling average. Jefferson County’s COVID-19 incidence rate on Tuesday was 59.8, according to state data.
Pollio shared his thoughts on reopening classrooms at JCPS ahead of Tuesday’s school board meeting, where board members discussed Beshear’s new guidance for schools in counties with high COVID-19 transmission and winter sports competition alongside the district’s vaccination plans for teachers and staff.
Beshear’s guidance for districts in “red” counties asks schools that want to continue offering classroom instruction to develop more stringent hybrid learning models and provide accommodations for employees with health conditions to limit how many people are inside buildings.
Pollio said the district’s human resources department has approved such accommodations for 2,000 teachers, or nearly a third of its total teaching staff of about 6,700. About 1,500 employees have also received accommodations, he said.
“However, I think the vaccine will reduce that number greatly,” Pollio said.
But during Tuesday's meeting, Pollio said he was not sure whether the state would continue using the color-coded map, particularly its guidance on hybrid learning models in counties with high levels of COVID-19 spread, once vaccines were readily available to school districts.
The district's goal will be to offer classroom instruction for students the entire week rather than bringing students back to schools in groups on certain days once JCPS resumes in-person instruction, he said.
"Every child will still have the option for that virtual academy," he said.
Pollio also expects the state's "Healthy at School" guidance will remain in effect for the rest of the 2020-21 school year.
Diane Porter, the board’s chairwoman who represents District 1, said she believes JCPS has “a smaller window of opportunity” to reopen schools in the second half of the 2020-21 school year.
Her primary concerns are for the health and safety of everyone inside school buildings, she said before Tuesday's meeting.
“I do understand the dynamics of being away from academics this long,” Porter said. “I understand the mental health issues, but it is our responsibility to guarantee safety and good health for all.”
Chris Brady, who represents District 7, said JCPS families need to prepare for the “very real possibility” that remote instruction will last through the end of the 2020-21 school year.
“It’s been very real since the beginning of this outbreak,” he told WDRB News. “I have some concerns about how we would do that if we were to go back to some hybrid approach.”
Brady, whose term is expiring, suggested setting a hard deadline to either reopen classrooms or continue remote instruction through the rest of the 2020-21 school year during Tuesday's meeting.
That would allow parents to plan accordingly for the remainder of the academic year, he said.
"It also allows us as an institution to be able to do other things within our schools that would make the opening of our school year next year that much better," Brady said.
But James Craig, who represents District 3, said he hoped the board would give schools every opportunity to safely reopen during the 2020-21 school year, down to the final week.
"There's value in that last 60 days for our seniors, our eighth graders, our fifth graders, all of our students," Craig said. "There's value even in the last week. If we can get these kids in at any point, I want us to be constantly striving for that throughout the next semester."
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