JCPS Supt. Marty Pollio

JCPS Supt. Marty Pollio sits down with WDRB News

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio wants Kentucky school districts to have more flexibility for remote learning amid the latest escalation in COVID-19 cases, which may force the state's largest school system to briefly shutter classrooms.

Kentucky school districts can use up to 10 days of nontraditional instruction during the 2021-22 school year after policymakers granted broad flexibility for remote learning the previous two academic years affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

School districts were allowed to assign students at individual schools or classes to remote learning for up to 20 days until Dec. 31 under a new law passed in September during a special legislative session. Sen. Max Wise, a Campbellsville Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has filed a bill in this year's session seeking another 10 days per school of targeted remote instruction days for school districts until June 30.

JCPS has another four days built into the 2021-22 calendar if those days need to be used to close schools because of COVID-19 cases, Pollio said.

"I don't necessarily want unlimited NTI days, but I have a real concern with only 10 NTI days -- that it's going to be a real struggle not just in JCPS, but throughout the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky," Pollio said.

Pollio's remarks come as COVID-19 cases surge in Kentucky and Jefferson County. More than 1,600 students and 600 staff at JCPS had tested positive for COVID-19 while 74 employees and more than 1,400 students were in quarantine as of 5 p.m. Wednesday, according to district data.

Pollio expects cases to continue to escalate thanks to the omicron variant of COVID-19 based on his conversations with local health experts.

"We most likely have not seen the worst of omicron when it comes to our community and our schools," he said.

JCPS does not have a threshold in determining when to transition to remote learning, but Pollio said a move to nontraditional instruction is "probable at some point in the next several weeks." Staff absences impact schools differently based on their sizes, and the district's supply of substitute teachers "is nowhere close to where we need it to be," he said.

"We send all of our resource teachers, central office administrators to go cover in the schools when we need, picking that up as much as we possibly can, but we will make that determination, obviously I think, as we see higher and higher cases," Pollio said.

"Quite candidly, right now we are at about a point where it's going to be difficult to continue on past this from where we stand right now," he said.

Jefferson County Board of Education member Sarah Cole McIntosh, who represents District 7, said she hopes lawmakers give districts more flexibility in utilizing remote learning.

"My hope is if we do get additional days from the state legislature that we're able to target specific schools where maybe the outbreak and absentee rate among the staff is much higher than other schools so that only schools who are facing that critical need are kept home on NTI while the rest of the district could continue with a regular schedule," McIntosh said.

If JCPS moves to remote learning, Pollio said the district would use multiple nontraditional instruction days rather than taking a day-to-day approach.

"We will look, obviously, to pair it with weekends, holidays, those types of things so we can get as many days in a row to see how many of them can come out of quarantine," Pollio said. "... One day of NTI will not do much for us when we are talking about clearing out, so to speak, those that are in quarantine or have positive cases."

Exactly how much advance notice JCPS families will have if the district moves to to remote learning remains unclear.

District leaders meet daily once all schools have dismissed to review COVID-19 data to make determinations on school operations, Pollio said. JCPS families were notified around 5 p.m. Tuesday that classes would continue as scheduled, and Pollio said the district would continue to be "open and transparent" with families.

He noted that inclement weather can sometimes force school leaders to call off classes in the early morning hours, and McIntosh suggested families have backup childcare plans ready in case the district has to transition to remote learning.

"It's almost like snow days," she said. "You always want to have that backup plan."

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