LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools and the Jefferson County Teachers Association have reached an agreement on how to resume in-person instruction at Kentucky’s largest school district if the school board votes to reopen classrooms, JCTA announced to its members Monday.
The deal comes a day before the Jefferson County Board of Education is scheduled Tuesday to discuss updates on the district’s proposed reopening plan and the vaccination schedule for more than 13,000 employees and contractors who have received their initial doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Moderna’s vaccine calls for a 28-day wait before administering a follow-up booster, and JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio told members of the school board last week that a staggered reopening could begin with elementary schools in mid-March pending their approval.
Pollio is slated to discuss proposals to resume in-person instruction five days per week at elementary schools and operate middle and high schools on a hybrid schedule, according to a copy of Tuesday's presentation. JCPS expects about 60% of its more than 96,000 students will choose in-person instruction once classrooms reopen based on the results of an ongoing district survey.
“The District and the Association agree that in-person learning can better address the learning, growth, and development of young people than virtual learning and share the goal of returning to in-person learning for JCPS students as soon as safely and efficiently possible,” the memorandum of understanding says.
“The District and the Association also agree that employees must have confidence in the safety and efficiency of their sites’ reopening plans and of the District’s commitment to support these plans. Further, the District and the Association agree that every reasonable care must be taken to protect the safety of students and staff.”
JCTA leaders negotiated the agreement with district administrators this weekend and the deal was approved without dissent by the union’s board of directors, according to a message sent to JCTA members Monday.
"After continued discussions over the weekend, we are pleased to reach this agreement with JCTA," Renee Murphy, head of communications and community relations for JCPS, said in a statement. "Collaboration is essential as we look towards the potential reopening of our school buildings. We value our teachers and we respect their feedback. We all want to do what is best for students and by working together this will be accomplished."
The deal creates a series of committees tasked with reviewing reopening plans.
Collaborative reopening committees, evenly split between school administrators and staff, will be created at every school to review each site’s reopening strategy, solicit feedback from staff, address issues raised by staff, ensure reopening plans are consistent with commitments to racial equity and continue monitoring circumstances as buildings resume in-person instruction.
A district collaborative reopening committee will solicit and respond to staff feedback, assure compliance with district and site reopening plans, respond to issues related to resuming in-person instruction, ensure the district’s reopening strategy is consistent with its commitment to racial equity and continue monitoring the district’s resumption of in-person instruction.
Pollio and JCTA President Brent McKim will pick members of the district collaborative reopening committee, according to the memorandum of understanding.
JCTA Vice President Tammy Berlin, who teaches at Atherton High School, said the committees will ensure that teachers have input on pandemic operations at their schools. Many teachers were left out as school administrators developed reopening plans for their buildings, she said.
"Teachers will have a 50-50 role in driving these building-level plans, so this lets teachers feel like they're more in the driver's seat on these because they'll get to have their questions and their concerns addressed directly at the building level and they'll be the ones who are helping to make decisions for how to make sure that conditions are safe for teachers and for students," Berlin said.
The memorandum also calls for the district to allow employees to teach from home if they are primary caregivers for those most vulnerable to COVID-19 and to provide accommodations for teachers who have requested vaccinations but not received them yet.
Teachers who take on extra responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years will be paid at their hourly rates, and the district committed to finding volunteers for such tasks first. Teachers will not be assigned janitorial duties, and the district committed to providing funding, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and custodial services for schools.
JCPS also agreed to review and “reasonably address” ventilation issues in classrooms and other work areas.
Most teachers who responded to a JCTA survey about in-person instruction expressed concern about reopening classrooms even after school employees are vaccinated against COVID-19.
Fifty-eight percent of more than 3,800 respondents said JCPS should continue distance learning even after teachers and staff are inoculated compared to 31% who said the district should operate on a hybrid schedule and 11% who said JCPS should offer in-person classes every school day, according to results shared by JCTA.
"We obviously have a lot of teachers who are concerned about going back, but whether we go back or not, I think we are 100% in a better situation to go back," Berlin said.
"If we go back, I would rather us all get to go back under conditions that we create ourselves and have some voice in making sure that things are as they should be rather than just having to rely on whatever conditions the building principals were able to put together with whatever limited resources they thought they had."
Talks of reopening JCPS classrooms have intensified during Jefferson County Board of Education meetings in recent weeks.
Board member James Craig, who represents District 3 and has been a proponent of resuming in-person instruction, says the agreement between JCPS and JCTA "gets us that much closer to opening classrooms." Securing buy-in from teachers on how JCPS schools will operate during the COVID-19 pandemic will be "crucial," he said.
"The biggest impediment is confidence in our ability to do this," he said. "We have to be able to run a district where we're not infecting, where we're not contributing to community spread of COVID."
Chris Kolb, the board's vice chairman who represents District 2 and has expressed concerns about resuming in-person instruction and winter sports at JCPS, did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment Monday.
The agreement between JCPS and the teachers union comes after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance Friday on school operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The latest CDC guidance says schools should implement mitigation strategies like social distancing, masking and hand hygiene to limit risk inside buildings during classroom instruction. Vaccinating teachers and staff is not a prerequisite for reopening classrooms in the CDC guidance, but Kentucky is on pace to have that completed in March.
State and local health officials previously told the school board that JCPS could safely resume in-person instruction with a combination of staff vaccinations and mitigation measures taken inside schools.
The new CDC guidance also offers recommendations on learning modes and extracurricular activities based on local COVID-19 transmission rates.
Districts should reduce attendance or transition to hybrid learning modes and only hold outdoor sports and extracurricular activities in areas with substantial coronavirus transmission, defined in the guidance as areas with between 50 and 99 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents every week and testing positivity rates between 8% and 9.9%.
In areas with more than 100 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents per week and testing positivity rates at or above 10%, the CDC guidance recommends that elementary schools transition to hybrid instruction, middle and high schools move to remote learning, and districts hold sports and extracurricular activities virtually.
While Jefferson County is considered an area of high COVID-19 transmission based on CDC guidance, it’s nearly out of the highest state category for community spread with an incidence rate Monday of 27.1 new cases per 100,000 residents based on a seven-day average.
Counties reach Kentucky’s “red zone” for COVID-19 transmission with incidence rates of 25 or more. Jefferson County has been red on the state’s color-coded map since October, and state guidance calls for districts in such counties to implement aggressive hybrid learning models or consider moving to remote instruction.
Gov. Andy Beshear has said the state’s guidance on school operations would be “significantly” relaxed as school teachers and staff get their COVID-19 vaccinations.
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