LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson County Public Schools is preparing to welcome more than 96,000 students into physical and virtual classrooms Wednesday as the 2021-22 school year begins.

After a school year remembered for virtual learning and hybrid scheduling during the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming academic term will feel more normal with students back in classes five days per week.

But with escalating caseloads locally and across the country driven by the more infectious delta variant, COVID-19 mitigation efforts like universal masking, contact tracing and social distancing will remain in JCPS schools.

“It will be more normal than last year, but still, obviously, we're going to be dealing with mitigation of COVID for the better part of, maybe the entire year,” Superintendent Marty Pollio said Tuesday. “We don’t know, but we’ve got to adjust and be ready.”

JCPS was among the first school districts in Kentucky to adopt a universal masking policy for the upcoming school year, and others have reconsidered their policies on face coverings as the COVID-19 delta variant continues to spread across the state and infections and exposures force students and staff into quarantine.

Warren County Public Schools instituted a temporary masking requirement after about 700 students and staff were quarantined days after classes began there, according to reports Tuesday. At nearby Greater Clark County Schools in Indiana, more than 1,000 students were completing mandatory 14-day quarantines because of exposures and the school system implemented a new masking policy for everyone inside schools.

“We believe it’s the safest and healthiest option,” Pollio said of the Jefferson County Board of Education’s decision to follow his masking recommendation.

JCPS will have nurses to help with contact tracing and rapid COVID-19 testing at schools for students who show symptoms and whose families consent to testing, said Dr. Eva Stone, the district’s health services manager. Families will be notified of any positive cases in schools, and unvaccinated students will need to quarantine if they come within 3 feet of anyone with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes even if they’re wearing masks, she said.

“Masking and social distancing, when possible, will significantly reduce the number of students and staff who are considered close contacts when there’s a case of COVID-19, and therefore that will help reduce those that need to quarantine,” Stone said.

Masks will be required on all buses and JCPS transportation. If students do not have a mask one will be provided. Hand sanitizer will also be available.

The district was able to retain about 80 percent of the drivers from last year. While it is expected most of the buses will be full – each student will have a specific place to sit during each ride.

"The assigned seats are very important obviously for contact tracing if we do have a positive case but this is the reality of sending all of our students back to school and having 60,000 that we are transporting both ways each and every day," Pollio said.

COVID-19 testing will also be available for asymptomatic students and staff in the upcoming school year, which will be free for the district as part of an existing state contract, according to Renee Murphy, head of communications for JCPS. Families must provide consent for such testing, Stone said.

“Lots of people have COVID and don’t have symptoms, so we’d love to see at least 10% of the population in the building participating,” she said.

Students who must quarantine will have virtual platforms available for instruction while they’re isolated, Chief Academic Officer Carmen Coleman said. The district has had contact with 128 students currently in quarantine as of Tuesday, according to district spokesperson Mark Hebert.

“We will use district-based resource teachers to provide live instruction for them during the quarantine period,” Coleman said. “This way, students can still have live instruction while their teacher is leading an in-person class at school.”

JCPS is offering a virtual learning option for families in kindergarten through 12th grade, the Pathfinder School of Innovation. District teachers will be assigned to classes as teachers of record, and Florida Virtual School and Edmentum will provide instructional support, according to JCPS.

More than 2,200 students have enrolled in the digital learning platform with 200 applicants still pending, according to the district.

Records provided by JCPS show 1,207 elementary school students, 663 middle school students and 977 high school students applied for Pathfinder School of Innovation. Those records include duplicates and families who later rescinded their applications.

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