LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- After Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio said he would recommend starting the 2020-21 school year with distance learning, bus drivers throughout the district began contacting their union president worried about their employment.
“They don’t know if they’re going to get furloughed or laid off or what’s going to happen to their job,” said John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783.
JCPS is planning to begin the school year on Aug. 25 with an updated version of its nontraditional instruction platform rather than resuming in-person classes as COVID-19 cases in Kentucky and Louisville escalate. Kentucky’s largest school district will reevaluate whether it can safely reopen classrooms to in-person instruction after six weeks.
The district and others throughout the state transitioned to remote learning in the closing months of the 2019-20 school year at Gov. Andy Beshear’s recommendation.
Stovall — whose union represents some 1,400 JCPS employees, about 800 of them bus drivers — says the district is working to ensure that his members remain employed while students learn remotely and don’t need to ride buses to schools.
“They’re willing to work with us to find job opportunities for those six weeks if it’s doing something else in another job classification or something because they district’s aware they’re already short bus drivers,” he said. “They can’t afford to lose 700 or 800 more because of this pandemic.”
JCPS maintained its staff during its first foray in nontraditional instruction, and the district expects to find other tasks for workers to complete with in-person learning on hold for at least six weeks at the start of the school year.
JCPS spokesperson Mark Hebert said details will be shared with employees within a week. Last school year, some employees helped distribute meals and pack and distribute Chromebooks, he said.
“We are currently working with the unions that represent these employee groups,” Hebert said. “We expect every current JCPS employee to keep their job during NTI and contribute to our students’ success.”
Sue Foster, the president of AFSCME Local 4011 that represents about 2,400 classified support staff in JCPS, said her members are protected under law because they must be notified of employment changes for upcoming school years by May 15.
Like Stovall, Foster said JCPS leaders are working to ensure “there’s a role for every employee of this district right now under NTI and with this pandemic.”
“Children are our business,” she said. “That’s our job, and it’s our responsibility to serve those children. Now, that looks different under NTI than it does in-person, but I also know that the support personnel of this district is resilient and cares deeply about these children.”
Foster expects many classified employees will see their responsibilities expanded during nontraditional instruction.
Instructional assistants, for example, may be asked to check on students in several classes to see if they need help with classwork. Nurses, too, may be tasked with conducted wellness checks for multiple schools rather than solely focusing on their own.
“We’re just going to have to come out of our norm, because there is no norm anymore,” she said.
Likewise, Stovall said his members will be able to fill myriad jobs during nontraditional instruction, such as cleaning buildings, sanitizing buses and delivering meals.
“There’s other opportunities right now that we can hopefully find a compromise for a short period of time to keep them working, to keep them on a paycheck and have health insurance,” he said.
Some have criticized JCPS for not reopening classes when school starts, possibly on Aug. 25 if the Jefferson County Board of Education approves delaying the beginning of the 2020-21 year.
Louisville Metro Council member Markus Winkler has said he wants JCPS to resume in-person instruction, suggesting the district use spaces like the KFC Yum! Center to ensure students have enough room to social distance.
But most JCPS employees have indicated their discomfort with returning to in-person instruction as COVID-19 cases rise.
A survey by the Jefferson County Teachers Association found that nearly two-thirds of respondents preferred starting the year on nontraditional instruction. A JCPS staff survey indicated that 56% of respondents shared that perspective.
Six of seven Jefferson County Board of Education members have indicated they will vote to start the 2020-21 school year with distance learning.
Foster said her union supports the district’s push to start the school year remotely.
“Read the data,” she said. “What price do we put on the life of a child or on the grandmother that works in our school system? What is that price?”
Stovall said bus drivers also worry about returning to work amid a global pandemic with COVID-19 cases increasing in recent days.
“You’ve got a lot of employees that are 50 and older that are in the transportation department, and they’re fearful,” Stovall said, noting that many began driving school buses as “a bridge into retirement.”
Young children “seem to be a little bit more immune or were in the beginning,” he said.
“But now it’s not looking that way. More and more children are getting it,” Stovall said. “... No one can give you a straight, absolute answer other than the fact that if we social distance, wear masks, that will help stop the spread of the disease.”
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