School lockers, hallway (generic)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools and other districts throughout Kentucky are still awaiting guidance from the state as they formulate plans to reopen their classrooms for the 2020-21 school year.

The Kentucky Department of Education’s Education Continuation Task Force is considering best public health practices to keep students, teachers and staff safe as schools soon resume in-person instruction, including requirements for wearing masks, sanitizing hands and surfaces, conducting temperature checks, contact tracing and enforcing social distancing.

On Monday, the state directed schools to plan for short, medium and long-term closures case of COVID-19 outbreaks during the upcoming school year.

“There’s not going to be a perfectly safe option out there,” Gov. Andy Beshear, who first recommended schools close to limit the spread of COVID-19 on March 13, said during a Monday news conference. “We know we’ve got to get back to school, and we hope that our school districts have a high commitment to safety.”

While state public health guidance hasn’t yet been issued, school districts continue preparing for the start of 2020-21. JCPS is planning to reopen Aug. 12.

“I think the sooner that we can have some guidance that we know is going to be the way that we are going to go in the fall, the sooner we can notify families and parents of that option,” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said. “... The sooner we can get information to our families, the better.”

Bullitt County Public Schools is scheduled to begin the school year Aug. 11, but BCPS Superintendent Jesse Bacon said the district’s starting date may be delayed by a couple of weeks based on results of a community survey commissioned by the district, which found that about 40% of respondents wanted an opportunity to attend classes virtually.

Families may be worried about returning back to school for a variety of reasons, such as living with people who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19, he said.

“We’re looking at developing that option for those families, but the plan right now is to try to bring all of our kids back,” Bacon said.

Pollio has also heard concerns about resuming in-person learning from students and staff who fall into vulnerable categories that are more susceptible to COVID-19. The district will survey its employees to get a better grasp of how many are worried about returning to work, he said.

“Whether someone has a preexisting condition themselves or maybe they’re the caretaker of someone with preexisting conditions or a child, I think there’s a lot of angst amongst educators and probably all employees,” Pollio said.

Both districts hope to improve their distance learning models amid possible COVID-19 outbreaks.

After offering 25,000 Chromebooks to JCPS families, mostly to low-income households, during the transition to nontraditional learning, Pollio said the district is buying more for the 2020-21 school year through its share of the federal stimulus.

JCPS received $5.2 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, which must be used for technology and emergency meal services, and $30.4 million from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which can be spent more freely.

The district also bought more than 6,000 hotspots with unlimited data from T-Mobile for special education students, helping provide connectivity for families that needed access to virtual resources for their children.

Pollio said KentuckianaWorks recently estimated that 30% of families in Jefferson County lack access to high-speed internet. To bridge that digital divide, Pollio said the district and others who grapple with similar connectivity issues will need help at the state and local levels.

He called it “a community challenge” and that the district hoped to move toward “synchronous learning” so students can attend classes virtually.

“We’ve got to work together to answer that question, so we can bring some temporary relief to that problem, but long term I think we’re all going to have to come together to get a solution to that,” he said. 

Some of Bacon’s students face similar connectivity issues. BCPS is exploring the possibility of buying hotspots or equipping school buses with wireless internet and parking them in certain locations so students can get access.

Students in sixth through twelfth grades already receive Chromebooks through the district, and Bacon says the district is planning to buy Chromebooks for its kindergarten through fifth-grade students as well with some of its $261,273 GEER funding.

“Our board has made a commitment to fund technology at that level,” he said. “Provided everything comes in on time, we'll be able to distribute devices at the start of the school year for our kindergarten through fifth-grade students.”

Despite not having guidance from the state, BCPS is brainstorming ways to follow best practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within its schools.

For instance, the district is considering ways to spread students out in classes inside and outside school buildings.

Bacon has challenged principals to “really thing outside the box about the learning space,” even if that means holding some classes outdoors during fair weather so students can maintain a social distance of 6 feet.

“We know that there is no substitute for in-class, face-to-face learning with a high-quality teacher, and so we are committed to trying to provide that as best we can,” he said. “That may require us to spread outside of the confines and the walls of our schools in order to make that happen.”

Maintaining social distancing in JCPS schools and buses will be among several challenges the district is currently grappling with as it determines ways to keep its school communities safe, Pollio said.

Things like personal protective equipment for students will come at a cost. Pollio expects to dedicate some of its ESSER funding for that effort.

“We are looking at things like how many face masks are we going to have to have on a daily basis to give to students,” he said. “If that’s 100,000 a day, we could be looking at $10 million for next year alone providing face masks to students and staff every single day.”

Pollio said the district will share ongoing updates with families on its website starting later this week as part of its efforts to communicate public health guidance before the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Pollio says based on his conversations with fellow superintendents throughout Kentucky, JCPS isn’t alone as it begins planning for students to return to classes amid the threat of COVID-19.

“Whether its small districts or large districts, we’re all struggling with the same thing,” he said. “We want our kids having face-to-face instruction, providing them the support they need.”

“We need them back in school, but on the other hand, we’ve got to focus on the health and wellness of our students and staff, so it makes it a very challenging and complex problem,” he said.

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