LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Three members of the seven-person Jefferson County Board of Education plan to vote Thursday to reopen classrooms in Kentucky’s largest school district.
Board members James Craig, Linda Duncan and Sarah McIntosh said they intend to vote to resume in-person instruction at Jefferson County Public Schools during a special meeting 6 p.m. Thursday.
Diane Porter, the board’s chairperson who represents District 1, told board members about the impending vote during a meeting Tuesday.
"I don't know that all the questions have been answered for everyone, but I think that it is time for us to make a decision," Porter said Wednesday. "This is a difficult decision for the for the board, one that we’ve never had before."
According to a meeting agenda published Wednesday night, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio will recommend the board "approve the plan presented for the return to in-person schooling." Pollio has not revealed his proposed reopening dates, though a presentation set for Thursday's board meeting highlights the district's mitigation strategies once in-person instruction resumes.
JCPS declined a WDRB News request to interview Pollio on Wednesday.
Pollio, who is set to deliver a state of the district address before Thursday’s board meeting, has previously suggested elementary classrooms could reopen five days per week by the third week of March while middle and high schools operate on hybrid schedules by the first week of April.
Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order encouraging schools to offer some form of in-person instruction by March 1 or a week after school employees are vaccinated against COVID-19.
"At the end of the day, we didn't vaccinate our educators for nothing," Beshear said during a Tuesday news conference. "We did this because we all know that we need some form of in-person learning."
Kentucky’s House of Representatives passed legislation Wednesday with bipartisan support that would, in part, require school districts to reopen their classrooms by March 29 if they want approval for additional nontraditional instruction days.
The extra distance learning days will only be available to districts if their counties’ COVID-19 incidence rates exceed 25 new daily cases per 100,000 residents based on a seven-day average, according to a floor amendment included in the version of House Bill 208 sent to the Senate Wednesday.
The decision on reopening JCPS classrooms hasn’t been entirely taken from the school board by the General Assembly yet. Supporters of resuming in-person instruction on the board will need at least one more board member to join their ranks to reopen schools at Kentucky’s largest school district, which has not offered classroom learning since the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days in March 2020.
"I’m more confident than I’ve been in the science but still keeping the administration’s feet to the fire to do it as safely as possible," said Craig, who represents District 3.
Chris Kolb, the board’s vice chairperson who represents District 2, has expressed reservations about resuming in-person instruction at JCPS, especially if the district cannot follow adhere to the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He said he could support reopening classrooms at JCPS if the administration limits how many students can return to schools to cut density in classrooms and buses.
He also suggested exploring other learning models detailed in the latest guidance offered by the Kentucky Department of Education to cut classroom density.
"I just think it's unethical to ask people to be in buildings for seven hours a day and have 20, 25 kids in a classroom," Kolb said Wednesday. "It’s insane, frankly."
Porter and Corrie Shull, who represents District 6, said they are undecided.
"I want to be certain that we are in alignment with some of the things that (the Kentucky Department of Education is) guiding us to do at this point," Porter said, adding that she will vote for the best interest of her district.
Board member Joe Marshall, who represents District 4, did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.
Duncan, who represents District 5, said Jefferson County’s declining COVID-19 transmission rate makes her more comfortable about potentially sending students and staff back inside schools.
Jefferson County’s incidence rate was 24.2 new daily cases per 100,000 residents based on a seven-day average Wednesday, just outside the state’s "red zone" for coronavirus spread. Local medical professionals also eased some of her concerns about whether schools will be safe once JCPS employees are vaccinated and mitigation strategies are followed, she said.
"What do I think independent of every force that’s been put on me right now? Independent of that, I think we should stay in (nontraditional instruction) for the rest of the year," Duncan said, citing concerns of following public health guidance if JCPS classrooms reopen.
"But I’m not elected to just be for me," she said. "I have to listen to lots of people, and I have."
Many parents hope the board ultimately approves the district's reopening plan.
"I think that would be a huge victory for our children," said Angie Marnell, a mother of two JCPS students.
Marnell said it's been hard to watch her son struggle through NTI.
"His grades have fallen," she said. "He's so stressed that he has told me, 'If I have to stay on NTI, I just don't want to go to school anymore.'"
Sara Hagan, whose son is in first grade, said NTI has put a financial strain on her family.
"We're still paying a thousand dollars a month for my child to get a public school education," she said, pointing to the costs of childcare and NTI pods. "My child wants to be back. He needs to be back."
The district released additional details of its reopening plan on Wednesday, which includes purchasing thermometers for families in need, keeping buses to no more than two per seat, and adding staff to help with elementary class sizes.
The plan also allows families to stay virtual, if they choose.
"I know there are parents that want to remain on NTI, and they should be able to remain on NTI," said Marnell. "And the families that want to go back should be given the choice to go back."
Duncan believes if the board does not vote to return to in-person instruction Thursday, the General Assembly will make that decision for the district.
"At this point, I’m looking at listening to the recommendation that Dr. Pollio gives and trying to follow that right now," she said, adding that she preferred a hybrid learning model that could be "shut down" quickly if COVID-19 escalates in schools.
Kolb, however, said he was "very concerned" that the district could not follow CDC guidance on school operations during the pandemic.
The CDC’s guidance creates a new color-coded metric for schools to follow based on COVID-19 caseloads in their communities. Jefferson County’s caseload of 193 cases per 100,000 residents over the past week is nearly twice as high as the minimum threshold for the agency’s indicator for high coronavirus transmission.
Schools in counties with high COVID-19 transmission should transition elementary schools to hybrid schedules or limit attendance so 6 feet of social distance can be achieved inside buildings. Middle and high schools in such locales should move to remote instruction unless mitigation measures can be strictly followed inside schools, according to the agency’s guidance.
The CDC also calls for in-person sports and extracurricular activities to be suspended in communities with high COVID-19 spread, a point Kolb has previously made in attempting to limit indoor winter sports at JCPS.
Kolb said he could revive such a motion at Thursday’s board meeting, though not if its failure was certain. The district has seen COVID-19 cases and quarantines grow "rapidly" within sports teams since activities began in January, he said.
"I think yesterday it was something like 20 confirmed cases and over 200 quarantined athletes, so it’s clearly not working," he said.
For Kolb, more should have been done locally to contain the spread of COVID-19 so JCPS could safely resume in-person instruction.
"(CDC) guidance is very clear that it's up to the communities around school districts to control community spread so that school districts can go back to school," he said. "They say schools should be the last thing to close and the first thing to open after all mitigation measures have been in place. We have not done that in Louisville."
Other board members believe the district can safely provide in-person instruction based on the advice of medical professionals.
JCPS expects about 60% of students will return to classrooms throughout the district once in-person learning resumes based on the results of a survey of families.
"Everyone has been working really around the clock to meet the needs the best that they can for our students, but I think that in the virtual environment there are just some things that can’t be replicated," said McIntosh, who said her children plan to return to classrooms once they reopen at JCPS.
"I know that we have a lot of students who are either disengaged or inconsistently engaged, and to be able to triage their needs and help provide them with the best services possible, we need to be able to see them."
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