LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio recommended Thursday that students in kindergarten through second grade become the first students back at Kentucky’s largest school district starting March 17.

Students in third grade through fifth grade will return March 18 if the Jefferson County Board of Education approves Pollio’s plan Thursday, he said during his state of the district address. Pollio’s recommendation is that elementary schools reopen for instruction five days a week.

Middle and high schools will operate on a hybrid schedule starting April 5, immediately after spring break, if approved by the board. Students will be grouped alphabetically by last name, this students in A-K in-person on Mondays and Tuesday and L-Z back in classrooms on Thursdays and Fridays, Pollio said.

Learning for middle and high school students will be remotely on Wednesdays.

Students in the district's early childhood program would return to classrooms March 22 in Pollio's proposal.

Teachers will also get time to prepare their classrooms for in-person learning, he said.

"This is a defining moment for us, a moment that we have worked towards since we closed our buildings last March," Pollio said.

JCPS will assign extra staff at elementary schools to ensure social distancing to the extent possible, he said. The district is also providing thermometers to families without so they can check their children's temperatures before the school day and installing extra ventilation equipment to improve airflow at some schools, he said.

Pollio also proposed summer programming for at least 30,000 JCPS students, continued operation of the district's learning hubs with Evolve 502 and a commitment to boosting student attendance.

"In the summer of 2021, we will have thousands of JCPS students accessing additional instructional time to recover lost learning and we’ll see a dramatic improvement in student achievement," he said.

"It is the time that we come together and support our students like never before," Pollio said. "Now that we have these safety measures in place, it’s time for us to do what is in their best interest."

The Jefferson County Board of Education will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday to vote on Pollio’s recommended reopening strategy amid increasing pressure from public officials in Frankfort. Three of the board’s seven members said they vote to resume in-person instruction.

Asked about the prospect of getting the four votes necessary to pass his proposal Thursday, Pollio said he was unsure.

"Unfortunately this whole process has been so challenging because we don't have that blueprint about what the right answer is for this, and so if I were going to quote the late, great Freddie Mercury I would say this has definitely been no bed of roses and no pleasure cruise," Pollio said. "But we're all trying to do what's best for our kids."

Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order Tuesday encouraging school districts to offer some form of in-person instruction by March 1 or once school employees are vaccinated against COVID-19. Medical professionals told the board later Tuesday that they believed the district could safely reopen classrooms with a combination of staff vaccinations and mitigation steps like masking and social distancing.

On Wednesday, Kentucky’s House of Representatives passed a bill requiring school districts to reopen classrooms by March 29 or get denied extra nontraditional instruction dates unless warranted by high rate of COVID-19 transmission in their counties.

Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim said he expected the moves from Frankfort would influence the board's vote on reopening.

Teachers still have questions that the union is working to answer about how their schools will operate during the COVID-19 pandemic if in-person instruction resumes in the 2020-21 school year.

"We're working very hard with the district  to prepare a reopening," McKim said. "I know in every building teachers are engaged on their collaborative reopening committees answering questions, figuring out the details. I believe Jefferson County educators are able to meet any challenge that comes their way."

The union has not taken a formal stance on reopening, but a JCTA survey found that 58% of nearly 4,000 respondents preferred concluding the 2020-21 school year with distance learning even after they're vaccinated against COVID-19.

JCPS expects about 60% of students will return to in-person instruction based on the results of a family survey. The rest will be in the district’s virtual academy if the school board approves Pollio's plan.

Social distancing, particularly in elementary schools slated to bring students back five days a week, has been a sticking point in recent drafts of the district's reopening proposal for some board members.

Some elementary schools expect high percentages of their students will return once classrooms reopen. At Tully Elementary, for instance, 77.8% of students have so far indicated their intent to resume in-person instruction.

Chris Kolb, the school board's vice chairperson who represents District 2, has suggested setting capacity limits inside buildings to ensure schools can provide at least 6 feet of social distance.

Pollio said House Bill 208, if approved by the General Assembly, could override such limits.

"House Bill 208 is going to say we have to provide in-person instruction for all students, so I think if that passes we would be violating the law by not allowing all students to have that option," he said.

Though not in his recommendation, Pollio said the district could operate elementary schools on a hybrid schedule.

"My preference is that we have it for five days because I think young children need that consistency," he said. "... I know that's a discussion we will have because we do have some schools that are higher enrollment and higher percentage of kids who want to come back."

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