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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools hopes to reopen “sooner rather than later” as thousands of district staffers prepare for their first doses of COVID-19 vaccines in a matter of weeks, Superintendent Marty Pollio said Tuesday.

The exact timing of the district’s reopening strategy depends greatly on how many doses of COVID-19 vaccines are allocated for JCPS, Pollio told the Jefferson County Board of Education. 

Elementary schools will be prioritized as JCPS gradually brings students and staff back to classrooms, starting with kindergarten, Pollio said.

“Our goal will be to bring you a recommendation to open up in-person school as quickly as possible” once a vaccination schedule is clear, Pollio said.

“We don’t know how many of the vaccinations we are going to get in three to four weeks and how many of the grade levels we will be able to essentially clear,” he said.

Based on the district’s survey results, he said JCPS would need about 7,000 vaccine doses to fully reopen elementary schools and 11,800 doses to reopen all schools. Even if the district's initial reopening is limited, he said the district hoped to offer in-person services to small groups of students at every grade level.

"We are putting a priority on (special education) students in this as well so that we bring the whole group from that level back even if we can't bring back the whole school," Pollio said.

Like other school districts throughout Kentucky, JCPS is developing plans for a mass vaccination effort for more than 13,300 of its teachers, employees and contractors who have requested COVID-19 vaccines. Nearly 2,000 respondents declined a vaccine, and about 3,500 did not answer the district’s survey.

JCPS is exploring the possibility of partnering with the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness to use the drive-thru inoculation offered at Broadbent Arena, which opened Monday for those in the first tier of vaccine recipients.

The vaccination process at Broadbent Arena will take around 45 minutes for staff, Pollio said.

The local health department quickly booked 1,000 appointments for this week, and Associate Medical Director Dr. SaraBeth Hartlage said that capacity would increase. In fact, she said the site doubled its bookings from 200 to 400 on Tuesday.

Districts have submitted names to the Kentucky Department for Public Health to secure doses for school personnel, who are in the second group of vaccine recipients. Gov. Andy Beshear has said he expects the next round of vaccine distribution to begin near Feb. 1, and Pollio said Tuesday that Jan. 25 will likely be the earliest starting date for the vaccination effort.

The Kentucky Department of Education reports public and private school systems have submitted names of 81,073 teachers and employees who want a COVID-19 vaccine. JCPS represents 16.5% of that total.

Pollio has previously said he hopes to start gradually reopening classrooms by mid-February, an unlikely timeline given the slow vaccine rollout in Kentucky and throughout the U.S.

He said Tuesday that if school districts receive Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine as expected, staff will need to wait four weeks before taking booster shots followed by a seven-day waiting period before schools can reopen.

Beshear said he hoped to improve the pace of vaccine distribution during a news conferences this week. State data show that 66,582 COVID-19 vaccine doses of 204,450 received have been administered in Kentucky as of Tuesday.

“No question this has got to move faster, and we're going to make it happen,” Beshear said Monday.

JCPS has not offered in-person instruction since mid-March, and vaccinating teachers and staff against COVID-19 has been seen as the most likely path to reopening classrooms at Kentucky’s largest school district during the pandemic.

Jefferson County has remained in the state’s “red zone” for COVID-19 transmission since October, and most members of the school board have said the local incidence rate must drop from the highest category for coronavirus spread and show regular improvement before they consider reopening schools.

School districts can offer in-person instruction in counties with high COVID-19 incidence rates, though the state has urged them to adopt more stringent measures to limit the numbers of students and staff in buildings.

Board member James Craig, who represents District 3, said JCPS should "think aggressively" about ways to offer in-person services for middle and high school students with learning disabilities.

The prospect of not reopening middle or high schools at all is "depressing," he said, adding that he is "really anxious" to find out how many vaccine doses are given to JCPS.

"I'm really hopeful that we can get back into the building even if it were for just a day," Craig said. "... I just want to make sure that we're not saying to the community tonight it's a vaccine or bust for the 2020-21 school year."

Once JCPS reopens, families will have the option of continuing distance learning. Of the 87% of families who have responded to a JCPS survey, 59% want their children back in schools once they reopen and 41% will enroll their kids in the district’s virtual academy.

Such a split “greatly helps us with social distancing in our schools,” Pollio said.

Board members also asked Pollio about the district's transportation needs and whether enough drivers were on hand to handle routes once schools reopen.

"Do we think in that time period we have adequate numbers of bus drivers who will have been vaccinated and ready to go?" asked board member Linda Duncan, who represents District 5.

Pollio said bus driver staffing has been an issue at JCPS for years, predating his start as superintendent in 2018.

"I'm not going to say that we have the bus drivers that we need to have to fill every single position, but I do believe, I am confident that we will have the bus drivers we need to meet the needs of getting our kids to school safely and effectively," he said.

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