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JCPS Preparing For Possible October Return To In-Person Classes

Liz Schlemmer

Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) will only consider returning to in-person learning after multiple weeks in the yellow zone on the state's coronavirus dashboard, according to JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio.

"I think we need to see a trend," Pollio said. "The last thing we want is to start school, and then stop it two weeks later. I think that would be the most frustrating thing for families, and educators and everybody."

At a school board work session Tuesday night, Pollio said the district will be followingthe guidelines the state released Monday for deciding whether to bring students back to the classroom. Under that system, the state recommends districts only hold in-person classes if the statewide positivity rate is below 6%, and if the district's county is labeled green or yellow on a dashboard tracking the local spread of the coronavirus.

Those color codes are based on the 7-day average for the number of coronavirus cases (per 100,000 people) in the county, and released each Thursday evening.

The Jefferson County school board has committed to at least three more weeks of virtual instruction, ending October 6.

As of Tuesday, Jefferson County was color-coded orange.

"We are definitely looking before any recommendation comes out that we must be in that yellow for multiple weeks. That's what we will be looking for," Pollio said.

Early in the meeting, Pollio said the latest the board might vote on whether to return to in-person learning would be at its September 29 meeting. The board could also call a special meeting to decide before then. But board chair Diane Porter said members need more information and time before making the decision.

"This is too intense, too serious and too important to not know every step along the way. And in some cases, we need a Plan A, and a Plan B," she said. 

Meanwhile the district is stocking up on personal protective equipment (PPE) and preparing its buildings for a potential return. JCPS chief operations officer Chris Perkins said JCPS has ordered enough PPE to maintain a six-month inventory for all schools, including masks and face shields. Staff are changing air filters, flushing and sanitizing ice machines, putting up public health signage and stocking schools with soap and sanitizer, he said.

Board Members Share Concerns About Returning

Many Jefferson County board of education members expressed concerns about bringing students and staff back to school buildings, and had questions for Louisville Metro Public Health Director Sarah Moyer, who attended Tuesday's board meeting.

Asked by board members about how the reopening of JCPS could impact community spread, Moyer suggested the case numbers would rise.

"We know the more contacts people have, the more community transmission will happen," she said, noting it will also depend on how well schools are able to follow the health and safety guidelines laid out by the state. 

The city's Catholic schools have been holding in-person classes since August, against the governor's recommendation to delay classes until the end of September. Moyer said the department has learned of 46 total coronavirus cases among staff members and 124 total cases in students in the city's Catholic school system. 709 students and staff have have had to be quarantined.

However, Moyer said, most of the cases are popping up among students who aren't in the same classrooms, and may be related to non-school activities like sports or sleepovers.

She warned that reducing class sizes and social distancing may be more challenging for JCPS because of its size. The district has about 93,000 students this year.

"I think it is going to be a lot more complicated for JCPS than for other school districts," she said.

Board member Joe Marshall said he's worried that reopening would disproportionately impact people of color.

"A big concern for a lot of people is, we get ready to go back into school, and then spreads happens, and it's going to hit our families of color -- our Black families or Hispanic families -- the hardest," he said. Health data shows Latino and Black Kentuckians are much more likely to catch the coronavirus, and more likely to die from it, than white people. 

"They're working. And so many of them don't have the choice to just stay at home, like some of our more affluent families have," he said.

Board member Corrie Shull wondered whether enough teachers and staff would be willing to come back to work in school buildings.

A July survey of JCPS staff found 60% of teachers were "uncomfortable" with returning to classes in-person.

JCPS chief human resources officer Jimmy Adams said the district is still processing 1,000 requests from staff to continue to working remotely. He said 770 of those were from instructional staff, like teachers.

Board members also expressed concerns about the difficulty of enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing among young students, hiring enough custodians for deep cleaning, and the challenges of social distancing on school buses.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.