10-16-20 JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio presser.jpg

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio is optimistic that classrooms in Kentucky’s largest school district will reopen during the 2020-21 school year, hopefully before students leave for Christmas break.

JCPS is approaching two months in its nontraditional instruction program called “NTI 2.0,” and the district informed families Thursday that distance learning will continue until local COVID-19 data improve.

Pollio had tentatively set a phased reopening date of Oct. 22, but coronavirus spread has only worsened in Louisville since the Jefferson County Board of Education approved his proposal Sept. 29. The board is scheduled to meet again 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to discuss an updated reopening plan.

“I get emails every single day, as I know our board members do, about going back to school and not coming back to school,” Pollio said at a Friday news conference at Carrithers Middle School. “It’s a difficult, tough decision for all superintendents and all boards across this country right now.”

COVID-19 incidence and testing positivity rates were determining factors in the district’s decision to continue distance learning, he said.

As of Friday, Jefferson County was nearing the red phase of the state’s color-coded coronavirus incidence rate with 24.1 new COVID-19 infections per day per 100,000 residents. When that rate tops 25, state guidance urges school districts in such counties to transition to remote learning.

Pollio and board members have said they want to see Jefferson County in or near the yellow category of the state’s COVID-19 incidence rate map, or between one and 10 new daily coronavirus infections per 100,000 residents.

Jefferson County’s testing positivity rate was 6.1% as of Friday, up from 5.5% at the time of the board’s Sept. 29 vote. Pollio said the local positivity rate would ideally fall below 6% before JCPS schools reopen.

“Many states have said 5% is that cutoff to keep kids out of school,” he said. “I saw Boston delayed a return to school this past week because the positivity rate went above 5%.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh on Oct. 7 delayed classroom reopenings for preschool and kindergarten students until Oct. 22 after the city's testing positivity rate surpassed 4%, according to the Associated Press.

Boston Public Schools has allowed some students to return for in-person instruction during the 2020-21 school year, primarly students with disabilities, those who are homeless or in foster care and English learners.

Chicago Public Schools, which has more than 340,000 students, announced Friday that it may allow the district's preschool and special education students to resume in-person classes during the second quarter, which begins Nov. 9, according to the Chicago Tribune.

JCPS is not the only major school system to delay reopening classrooms, but some urban schools have decided to bring students back to schools.

The New York City Department of Education was the first major public school system to allow students back into classrooms in September, though schools in some emerging COVID-19 hotspots in the city have been closed, according to The New York Times.

Houston Independent School District, the seventh-largest school system in the U.S., is slated to offer in-person classes starting Monday after students began the 2020-21 school year remotely on Sept. 8. The 209,000-student district will also provide virtual instruction, according to its reopening plan.

Students from preschool to third grade were allowed back inside classrooms at Indianapolis Public Schools on Thursday with students in other grades gradually returning to schools starting Monday, the district's reopening plan says.

Indiana's largest school district also offers a remote learning option for families.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools brought students in kindergarten through second grade back to classrooms on Tuesday, the first day of a phased reopening plan in which high school students are scheduled to return Jan. 7. 

Cincinnati Public Schools began a blended learning schedule for students this week, with groups of students alternating between remote and classroom instruction for those in specialized classrooms, preschool, kindergarten, first, second, seventh and eighth grades.

Students in all other grades will be allowed to return to Cincinnati Public Schools classrooms Monday, according to the district's reopening plan.

Reopening plans at JCPS have always allowed families to choose either in-person or virtual learning.

As of Friday, Pollio said about 60% of the nearly 50,000 families who have responded to the district's survey want their children to return to schools while nearly 40% have chosen to continue distance learning once classrooms reopen.

"We want to be ready to go," Pollio said. "As soon as the data shows that we can get back into school, we will get back into school."

"Our kids need to be back in school," he said. "There is no doubt, but we've got to make sure that we ensure safety and health first."

Pollio, who said most members of the Council of the Great City Schools have remained in virtual instruction, said there was an element of politics involved in the decisions of some school districts to reopen.

“I think that we have to be honest. That’s a part of it,” he said. “But I think all superintendents right now are seeing the same thing. We’re trying to look at local data. Each state does it a little bit differently how they look at their data, but every single superintendent that we talked to is valuing safety and health first, no doubt about it.”

While Pollio hopes students can return to in-person classes during the 2020-21 school year, not everyone shares his optimism.

“I think that we should really call it (and) let parents know that we probably won’t be coming back for the rest of the calendar year and reevaluate that in January,” said Chris Brady, a JCPS school board member who represents District 7.

Even then, Brady believes producing and releasing a COVID-19 vaccine could take until June and potentially affect the entire 2020-21 school year.

“I’m hopeful that by that time we would have found something, maybe we could advance that a little bit, but I’m not optimistic that we would return for the rest of the school year,” he said.

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