LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Jefferson County Teachers Association and the Jefferson County Association of Educational Support Personnel will survey their members next week on whether they support reopening classrooms at Jefferson County Public Schools.
The polls come as JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio inches closer toward a formal recommendation on resuming in-person instruction at Kentucky's largest school district, which has offered remote learning for nearly 100,000 students since mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have not taken an organizational position, but we are conveying our members' concerns to the district administration," JCTA President Brent McKim said. "… We'd like to get the survey out and get some data to be more informed on what our members' perspectives are."
Sue Foster, president of JCAESP, said many of her members are ready to return to work, though they have concerns about building sanitation and enforcement of measures like masking and social distancing inside schools once they reopen that need to be addressed.
"It has to be done safe," she said. "You know, we're a very resilient group, but there's also a line to resiliency."
JCTA represents about 6,000 teachers while JCAESP represents about 4,000 classified workers, including instructional assistants, nutrition workers and clerical staff.
Like other school systems throughout Kentucky, JCPS staff have started getting their first rounds of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Dr. SaraBeth Hartlage, Louisville Metro's interim health director, said Friday that all JCPS employees who registered for vaccinations will have their initial doses of Moderna's vaccine by Tuesday and that everyone who received a shot has already been allocated a booster to be taken 28 days later.
More than 13,000 JCPS teachers, staff and contractors signed up for COVID-19 vaccinations, and Hartlage said about 10% of Jefferson County residents have been vaccinated so far.
Pollio has said the timing of his recommendation to reopen schools will depend on how quickly teachers and staff can get their vaccine boosters. He told reporters Friday that the process will "hopefully" begin Feb. 19.
"We'll be monitoring when we get that, and that'll be an important step for us," he said Friday at Louisville Metro's drive-thru vaccination site at Broadbent Arena.
The positions of JCTA and other unions on reopening JCPS classrooms will not influence Pollio's recommendation, though he noted that his administration has collaborated with the district's labor groups "every single day."
"My decision is going to be what's best for JCPS," Pollio said. "… I think our board members are exactly the same way. That doesn't mean we're not working with them and collaborating and figuring out a best way to bring everybody on board, but that's not necessarily impacting my decision."
Foster said she expects JCAESP will take a formal position on reopening once Pollio presents details of his proposal, but she believes the district's work with groups representing JCPS employees will make supporting the administration's strategy relatively straightforward.
"I think the collaboration is going to get us where we need to be, and I think we're going to have these kids back, our staff will be back, and we'll make it work for as long as we can as long as it's safe," she said.
"I don't know any union leader in this district who has said, 'We're not going back,' or has that mentality that we're not going back," Foster said. "The mentality is, 'How do we work together to make it safe for everyone?'"
Reopening talks at other urban school systems in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles have stalled as pressure mounts to resume in-person instruction.
Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday that school systems do not need to wait until all teachers are vaccinated against COVID-19 before reopening classrooms. Teacher and staff vaccinations are one sticking point in the push by unions against resuming in-person instruction, according to reports this week from Chicago and Los Angeles.
That's not the case in Kentucky, McKim says. He expects to get results from the JCTA reopening survey by the end of next week.
"What the Chicago Teachers Union appears to be saying is that in order to go back they want what we have, which is an inoculation and a waiting period," he said.
The debate on reopening schools has intensified locally as well. Dr. Sarah Moyer, Louisville Metro's chief health strategist, and Dr. Connie White, deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health, told the Jefferson County Board of Education on Tuesday that JCPS could safely resume in-person instruction with a combination of staff vaccinations and adherence to public health guidelines like masking and social distancing inside schools.
But at least one member of the Jefferson County Board of Education has expressed reservations about resuming in-person instruction at JCPS given local COVID-19 caseloads, drawing a rebuke from U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell during a speech on the Senate floor.
Chris Kolb, the school board's vice chairman who represents District 2, said one of his primary concerns about potentially reopening JCPS classrooms is protecting employees who live with people in high-risk medical categories.
"Many are caretakers for high-risk individuals who are not going to be vaccinated, and what we've seen so far is even though the vaccine is really, really effective in keeping you from getting ill, you still do transmit the virus," Kolb said in a previous interview with WDRB News.
Pollio said the district is developing a plan to provide accommodations for employees with "legitimate" reasons to work from home, though he said JCPS is "confident we will be able to meet the needs of our educators."
"We've got to make sure that we have the personnel, obviously, to run school," he said Friday. "… As a former high school principal, it's hard enough on a regular Friday in February without a pandemic to ensure that you have everyone there you need to educate and support kids in a safe and healthy manner. It's much harder in a pandemic."
Foster ultimately believes JCPS schools will reopen to conclude the 2020-21 school year.
Pollio has said he will present his recommendation to the Jefferson County Board of Education either at a Feb. 16 meeting or a special meeting in February. JCPS expects about 60% of its students will return to schools once they reopen based on the results of a district survey of families.
"We do want these schools open, and contrary to what Mitch McConnell may say, our unions are not stopping these kids from being in school and our school board members are not bought by these unions," Foster said, adding that JCAESP has not donated "one penny of our members' money" to school board candidates.
Better Schools Kentucky, JCTA's political action committee, has endorsed candidates, including Kolb, in local school board races and spent six-figure sums supporting their preferred choices in those elections.
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