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As omicron cases mount, staffing shortages plague JCPS

JCPS plant operator Marcella Harvell demonstrates how a room would be disinfected if a positive case is discovered in the class.
JCPS plant operator Marcella Harvell demonstrates how a room would be disinfected if a positive case is discovered in the class.

Jefferson County Public Schools is facing widespread staffing shortages as teachers and other school personnel test positive for COVID-19 amid the rapid spread of the omicron variant. Just two days into the semester, teachers and district leaders are already worried in-person learning might not be sustainable.

“Quite candidly, right now we are at about the point where it's going to be difficult to continue on,” JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio told reporters Wednesday morning.

Pollio said district leaders will meet each afternoon to evaluate the infection and quarantine data for each school and decide that evening whether the district will continue to hold in-person classes the next day, or pivot to remote instruction, also known as nontraditional instruction, or NTI. 

That means families could have less than 24 hours notice ahead of the move to NTI.

Teachers already running ragged

On Wednesday morning, the second day of the semester, the number of staff and students testing positive for COVID-19 had more than tripled in two days: 1,321 students and 527 staff had tested positive. The number of positive students make up a small portion of the district’s roughly 97,000 students. It’s staffing shortages that could drive the district into remote learning. Only about 3% of the district’s 18,000 full and part-time staff are positive. But even a handful of staff out at one school can cause major disruption.

At Doss High School, 12 staff members were out with COVID on the first day back.

“There's so many staff members testing positive at this point that it just feels like it's only a matter of time before we cannot continue,” Doss High School English teacher Hans Probst told WFPL News Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, a long-standing shortage of substitutes means the remaining teachers have to cover sick teachers’ classes during their planning periods.

“Our substitute pool is nowhere near where we need it to be,” Pollio said.

Southern High School teacher Emilie McKiernan Blanton told WFPL News staff shortages made in-person learning “unsustainable” even before omicron hit over the winter break.

“And now, instead of coming back and feeling rejuvenated, we just hit the ground with ‘Well, who can cover? Who's got availability? Who can make sure that we have coverage for these kids?’” she said.

She worries teachers are running ragged without time to plan their lessons.

“We're going to hit a point where people are making themselves physically and mentally sick, trying to do their job and cover for all of the other shortages,” she said.

Both McKiernan and Probst acknowledge the drawbacks of remote learning. 

Probst said he and his students don’t want to go into NTI. Many did not fare well during the first round of virtual instruction in 2020, or the second round last school year, which JCPS dubbed “NTI 2.0.” But he worries JCPS may not have a choice.

“Somebody said ‘NTI 3.0,’ and I almost vomited,” Probst said.

Both teachers are also worried that keeping schools open will increase spread among students and their families, many of whom are still unvaccinated.

Omicron is believed to be generally milder than previous variants of COVID-19, but it is still hospitalizing and killing people, especially those who have declined the vaccine.

Not enough NTI days

While Pollio acknowledges the challenges teachers are facing, in some ways, the district’s hands are tied. In September, the GOP-led General Assembly restricted the number of NTI days for each district to 10 per school year.

“There is a great fear for me that we will use our 10 NTI days and come to a point where we cannot hold school effectively and not have the tools we need to make sure that we continue safely,” he said.

He says JCPS will try to use the days they have as effectively as possible, creating long weekends, for example. But Pollio anticipates the district will need more than 10 days to get through the omicron wave, which is expected to peak at the end of January.

He’s calling on the legislature to increase the number of NTI days districts can take. Lawmakers returned to Frankfort Tuesday.

WFPL News asked Pollio if the district is considering changing its mitigation strategies in light of the super-contagious nature of omicron. The variant is better than its predecessors at evading the vaccine, more adept at slipping through cloth masks and less likely to show up on the rapid antigen tests the district relies on for monitoring.

The superintendent stood behind the existing protocol, and pointed to the lack of mitigation strategies outside school buildings.

“You have, let's just say, this basketball game tonight in downtown Louisville that could have 15,000 people in the Yum Center, you know, probably most without a mask,” he said. “And then, you know, we're being asked about the mitigation factors that we're putting into place.”

Pollio said families should watch out for communication from the district about a pivot to NTI, especially with possible snow arriving later this week.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence.

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

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