LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Adhering to public health guidance for reopening schools for the 2020-21 school year “will be challenging” for Kentucky’s largest school district, Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio said Thursday.
That sentiment was echoed by other stakeholders in JCPS as the district contemplates ways to ensure students and staff remain healthy during the global COVID-19 pandemic as schools return to in-person instruction in the upcoming school year.
The “Healthy at School” guidance, detailed by Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman and interim Education Commissioner Kevin Brown Wednesday, envisions students wearing masks on buses, in classes if social distancing can’t be practiced and in hallways as they move through buildings; checking temperatures of students and staff before boarding buses or entering schools; staff frequently sanitizing surfaces and emphasizing hand washing to students; and staff helping local health departments conduct contact tracing.
“It's an enormous task for a district this size, and I can't say it enough again: There is no easy way to go about this,” Pollio said during a news conference Thursday. “… But I do believe the staff, students and the families at JCPS are up to it. I look forward to making sure that we do the best job we possibly can to provide students with instruction, whether that be in person or virtually.”
Like many other school systems throughout Kentucky, JCPS officials are still working on the district’s reopening plans as it nears the Aug. 12 starting date for the 2020-21 school year.
Pollio has said he expects to finish reopening plans by mid-July.
However, complying with the state’s public health guidance to resume in-person instruction will be “extremely difficult to pull off in real life,” said Fairdale High School social studies teacher Cassie Lyles.
JCPS class sizes are capped at 31 students in high school, making it infeasible to provide at least six feet of space required for social distancing in her classes.
“I have many classes that are at cap or close to cap, and there's no way that I can distance students the appropriate amount,” Lyles said.
That presents another conundrum for teachers like Lyles. If students aren’t properly spaced out in classrooms starting in the first grade, they’re expected to follow federal and state health guidelines and wear masks during the 2020-21 school year unless they have a medical waiver.
JCPS expects to spend nearly $12.3 million on disposable masks for students in the upcoming school year with some of its federal stimulus money.
State officials have suggested that school districts avoid punishing students for not wearing masks, and Pollio says JCPS will follow that directive. The district is still contemplating ways to get students to cover their faces as laid out in the state’s guidance, he said.
“The state has been clear with superintendents that this should not be a punitive measure, which clearly makes it a challenge when we need students to wear masks for safety,” Pollio said. “… We hope to be on the positive side of things, to support students, to educate students and keep that social distancing, so we'll keep working on those guidelines and developing with our school leaders about how we will implement that.”
Lyles believes most students in high school will wear masks as required, but enforcement will be “an inevitable problem that we’ll have to deal with at some point.”
She plans to appeal to her students’ desires to protect others to convince them to wear face coverings at Fairdale.
“Masks are uncomfortable, and there are going to be some people who push back on that,” Lyles said. “… I don’t think it will be hugely widespread, but I do think it’s problem that we’ll have to deal with.”
Rep. Tina Bojanowski, a Louisville Democrat who sits on the state’s Education Continuation Task Force and also teaches special education classes at Watterson Elementary, says there are fifth-grade classrooms at her school where separating desks by six feet would be impossible.
Wearing masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has become a divisive topic throughout the country, and Bojanowski suggested that alternative learning options could be offered to students who refuse to cover their faces in schools.
“If public health experts say wearing a mask would be our safest way to get back into school in the midst of a pandemic that in the United States is actually increasing in incidence rates, then I think it’s just something that we have to do,” she said.
Still, Bojanowski said she wouldn’t be surprised if some districts ignored the guidance on requiring students to wear masks. At one point, someone asked during a Education Continuation Task Force meeting whether masking could be negotiable.
Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky’s public health commissioner, told the panel that masks were “essential” to school reopening plans, she said.
“It frightens me that a whole district would not require masks because then the outcome most likely would be that more people will be exposed to the virus and there would be a spike there, and then we’d have to back up and start over again,” Bojanowski said.
Anna Elder, whose daughter is a junior at duPont Manual High School, says she likes the idea of including masks in schools’ dress codes but worries that will require greater degrees of monitoring from staff.
She also believes there should be consequences if students refuse to wear masks, such as separating kids who don’t wear masks into classrooms where social distancing can be maintained while they do schoolwork.
“I think if you’re going to enforce a mask or require a mask, to be able to do any sort of enforcement there will have to be some sort of a consequence,” Elder said.
Lyles also questions how teachers will be able to ensure high-touch surfaces are sanitized between classes since those periods only last about five minutes and teachers often monitor hallways during that time, “which is extremely important.”
“I would be more concerned about how do we monitor the hallways and make sure kids are distancing while also sanitizing at the same time,” she said, noting that some cleaning products currently aren’t allowed in JCPS classrooms.
While teachers and principals will have more responsibilities under the district’s reopening plans, Pollio expects to work with the Jefferson County Teachers Association “to ensure that teachers are able to teach.”
“If we are back in the classroom, we want them to be able to teach,” Pollio said. “… We have to be able to meet the needs of our teachers and our staff and our students to be in-person. I think we will be able to do that at this time, but those are question that are still remaining to be answered as we collaborate with our partners.”
JCPS is also preparing in case it needs to transition to some form of remote learning, such as a blend of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. The district has ordered 30,000 additional Chromebooks to distribute to families, which were originally limited to one device per household during nontraditional instruction.
Connectivity remains an issue in JCPS and other school districts throughout the U.S. and Kentucky. Pollio estimates that about 30% of Jefferson County households lack high-speed internet access.
The district is exploring the possibility of buy more data hotspots, but Pollio says that issue is one the community at large much work together to solve.
“That’s a community-wide issue,” he said.
For Lyles, the lack of high-speed internet at home represents an enormous equity barrier for many students if schools are forced to move back to distance learning.
“It’s a public education and we’re all entitled to it, and it shouldn’t be based on the access that we have,” she said. “That’s my underlying worry.”
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