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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Wednesday marked a quiet end to an unexpectedly chaotic school year at Jefferson County Public Schools, which quickly pivoted to distance learning in response to the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

And as Kentucky’s economy slowly reopens with new COVID-19 cases trending downward, leaders at JCPS and school districts throughout the state are carefully evaluating when they can reopen their classrooms and what precautionary steps they’ll have to take when students and teachers return.

Superintendent Marty Pollio said he expects an irregular start to the 2020-21 school year based on guidance school officials have received from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Kentucky Department for Public Health and the Kentucky Department of Education, which has directed superintendents to plan for early, regular and late starting dates for the upcoming school year.

“It is unlikely that the start of school will look like a normal school year,” said Pollio, who has convened a pandemic response team to begin exploring how JCPS will operate with the looming threat of a COVID-19 resurgence.

Bullitt County Public Schools Superintendent Jesse Bacon said his district has also tapped “a core team” of leaders who will seek input from stakeholders as they develop reopening plans.

“We want to talk to our principals, want to talk to our teachers, want to talk to our families about some of the ideas that we have before we make a definitive decision on how we’re going to open school next year,” he said. “A lot of that will be dependent on what kind of guidance we get from the department or the governor’s office.”

As it stands, some health guidance received from school districts include:

  • Putting 6 feet of space between students in classrooms, on buses and in cafeterias
  • Conducting health and temperature checks on students and staff
  • Requiring most to wear masks or face coverings while inside school buildings
  • Regularly sanitizing surfaces
  • Limiting cross contamination of classroom resources and personal items

School districts have also been asked to consider alternative learning models depending on the spread of COVID-19, such as grouping students and staggering their in-person instruction by day or by week, allowing families to choose whether to send students back to school or have them continue learning from home through virtual live streaming, continuing nontraditional instruction, or alternating between in-class and distance learning.

Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky's public health commissioner, told superintendents during a virtual conference call Tuesday that reopening schools will be difficult in the fall because other businesses and entities have been directed to limit their indoor capacities as restrictions on them are gradually lifted.

"It's very difficult to see how that works with the way schools are financed and also with the ways that parents rely on schools five days a week ... so that they can go to work and their kids can be somewhere safe and be educated," he said. 

"It is a big challenge, and I have not seen any real good solutions yet for these trade-offs between bringing large numbers of children back together where they can infect each other and then take infection back home relative to the other cost to society with having all these children not getting their education, perhaps falling behind, and their parents unable to work as reliably because their children aren't in school," Stack said.

Public health guidance will not only evolve based on the progress of COVID-19, but also likely drive up costs for school systems as they reopen traditional learning environments.

Pollio said limiting bus seating to one per seat in every other row would cut capacity to 10 to 15 students on each bus, “which would quadruple the amount of buses we might need and make it a different schedule that we might have to work with.”

The district would also need to find ways to ensure students regularly wear masks or cover their faces indoor. With nearly 62,000 students who receive free or reduced-price meals, Pollio said JCPS would have to provide at least that many masks on an ongoing basis.

“Those are the issues that we continue to work with, and our pandemic response team is working on what the cost of that will be,” he said.

Bullitt County is also looking into the possibility of providing masks for its students, and Bacon said the district will likely use stimulus funding to help cushion the financial blow.

“We’re well aware that the possibility of us reopening with students and staff having to wear that (personal protective equipment) is real, and so we’re really looking into how we might provide it, how we might obtain it and what the might look like as we start school next year,” he said.

Finding masks could be an issue for school districts throughout Kentucky and the U.S. as they buy supplies for their students, particularly those who live in poverty.

Pieces of personal protective equipment were hard to come by for federal and state governments at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic as they scrambled to find supplies for frontline health care workers.

Pollio said finding and buying masks will “be a major challenge for any school district.”

“We know it’s difficult to get them right now just for our employees, so these are all challenges that are clear for us,” he said. “But I think we’re up to the challenge.”

JCPS also hopes to at least double the 20,000 Chromebooks it distributed to low-income and special needs students at the start of its distance learning program if the district offers synchronous learning, which would allow teachers to provide instruction through live streams, during the upcoming school year.

That would allow JCPS to lift its limit of one Chromebook per household, Pollio said.

“If there are three students in a household that has one computer and all three of their teachers want them on at 9 a.m., that’s going to be a challenge,” he said, adding that providing between 40,000 and 50,000 Chromebooks will ensure that “every student who needs one has one and we can go forward to that synchronous model of instruction.”

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