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JCPS Will Struggle With Social Distancing, Even With Some Staying Remote

J. Tyler Franklin

Jefferson County Public Schools is hoping that the number of families who choose to remain virtual will allow schools to keep class sizes down for a possible return to the classroom this spring. But the district cannot guarantee that students will be kept six feet apart, the distance health experts say prevents the spread of COVID-19.

That’s the latest from district staff and school leaders, who presented pieces of their plans to the Jefferson County Board of Education Tuesday night. They described staggered arrival and dismissal procedures, socially distanced breakfasts and lunches, supply buckets of masks and other PPE, and markings on the floors to help students remember to keep their distance.

Of the thousands of JCPS families surveyed, 41% said they preferred to keep their student in the virtual setting, while 59% said they would send their students in-person.That ratio is fairly consistent among schools. However, there are a few elementary schools where more than 70% of families chose the in-person option.

School leaders who presented their plans said class sizes would be “limited.” Iroquois High School principal Robert Fulk said his classrooms would hold no more than 15 students each. 

At the same time, district officials said they are not limiting the number of students who choose the in-person option, leaving board members with questions about how schools would handle classrooms that have too many students to maintain social distancing.

“What are our plans for supporting those buildings...where we anticipated 60/40, but you got the short end of the stick, and now your rooms are a little bit more crowded?” District 4 board member Joe Marshall asked. He said he’s heard from a principal concerned because her kindergarten classrooms will have 20 students each.

District staff had few answers, other than to say they would be communicating about concerns with schools. 

Gutermuth Elementary principal Laura Mullaney said she is planning ahead by keeping class sizes at 12 in some grades and designating backup teachers if more students come in-person than anticipated. But it doesn’t always solve the space problem.

“The truth is, in most classrooms, we can't provide six feet of distance,” she said.

According to state guidance, schools should try to create six feet of distance. But if they can’t, they should “space desks as far away as possible.” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio told Marshall that schools’ plans align with this guidance. But Marshall was not satisfied.

“We've got to find a way and get started back in the building in a safe way that gets them what they need, but not a rush job that is going to cause more problems than it’s worth,” he said.

Marshall asked school leaders in the meeting to give their honest opinion on whether they believe their plans will get students back to school safely. 

“I think we have the capability to do this safely in the time that is allotted to us,” Fulk said.

Board members also had questions about ventilation quality in the district’s school buildings, many of which are very old. 

“Our HVAC systems in our schools bring in fresh air,” Chief Operating Officer Chris Perkins said. He said his concern is for small rooms without proper ventilation or windows, often used for small groups of students with special needs.

There were also concerns about social distancing on school buses. State guidance allows for buses to run at full capacity, with 2 and even 3 students in a seat. JCPS officials are hoping the number of families who opt for the virtual academy will cut down on bus loads. Students will also be required to wear masks.

Pollio said board members will get a “lengthy” presentation next Tuesday on plans for a return, and suggested that members would vote in a subsequent meeting. 

In previous meetings, Pollio said he plans to bring a recommendation for a phased-in return beginning with elementary schools, once all JCPS staff have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. If the state receives the second doses on schedule, that could put an opening as early as March.

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