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Jefferson County School Board To Vote Thursday On Return To Classroom

The Jefferson County Board of Education plans to vote Thursday on whether to reopen classrooms to in-person instruction for the first time since last March, when school buildings across the state closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The district has not provided a firm start date for the possible reopening, but JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio said in previous meetings he is eyeing the third week of March for elementary schools, followed by middle schools and high schools in April.

The announcement came during a Tuesday night board meeting in which several prominent local health experts weighed in on the district’s plans and their deviation from the newest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The doctors expressed support for JCPS’ reopening proposal, despite the fact that the plan doesn’t require six feet of space between desks, the latest recommendation from the CDC for communities with “substantial” or “high” transmission, like Louisville. 

Dr. Sarah Moyer, Director of Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, said even when students are closer than six feet apart, the risk is still “low” for transmission of COVID-19, “assuming the other layered mitigation strategies are still in place,” such as masking and proper ventilation.

Moyer pointed to the decision by Indiana’s health commissioner to lower the recommended distance between students to three feet after contact tracing data showed the virus was not spreading between students less than six feet apart in the classroom. 

Dr. Monalisa Tailor, an internal medicine physician and president of the Greater Louisville Medical Society, agreed, and added that children are less likely than adults to spread COVID-19 to adults or amongst one another. Dr. Mark Burns, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Louisville, also agreed.

But the doctors’ assurances did not placate District 2 board member Chris Kolb.

“The CDC is very clear that if we cannot guarantee six feet of space within our classrooms or on our buses, that is a roadblock on which we cannot compromise,” Kolb said. “I’m not a doctor, but I can read.”

While cases of COVID-19 are declining, the CDC still considers Jefferson County a high transmission area with 213 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days. To move students closer than 6 feet under CDC guidelines, cases would have to fall to fewer than 49 cases per 100,000 over seven days.

Pollio said the plan will follow guidelines from the Kentucky Department of Education, which has not incorporated the new CDC recommendation.

“That’s just not acceptable,” Kolb said. “Putting kids less than six feet apart from one another... is not only insane at this time, it’s completely unethical.”

Kolb is one of seven board members who will vote on Thursday. District 6 member Corrie Shull has also expressed concern about the possibility of a school opening furthering community spread. Other members, including District 3 board member James Craig, have signaled support for bringing students back.

Meanwhile, state-level pressure on JCPS to reopen is growing. Hours before the meeting, Gov. Andy Beshear said he signed an executive order recommending schools create or expanding in-person learning offerings by March 1, or 7 days after all staff have received the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

"At the end of the day we didn't vaccinate our educators for nothing," Beshear said during his afternoon briefing Tuesday. "We did this because we all know that we need some form of in-person learning.” Beshear’s administration has prioritized vaccinating K-12 staff members with the goal of offering in-person instruction. All but six Kentucky school districts have returned to some form of in-person instruction, according to Beshear.

In addition, several state House Republican lawmakers have filed floor amendments to a bill that could force the district to reopen, one as early as March 15.

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