Coronavirus Education

All 18,000 employees in Jefferson County Public Schools will have to get the COVID-19 vaccine or undergo testing every other week, under a new policy approved by the Jefferson County Board of Education Tuesday night.

“If we expect to stay in school, the real threat to that is the amount of quarantining that has to take place. The more we vaccinate, the less we quarantine,” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio told the board.

Staffing shortages due to sickness and quarantine have forced dozens of Kentucky school districts to temporarily shut down in-person learning. Vaccinated staff are much less likely to become sick, and they don’t have to quarantine if they are exposed to the virus and don’t have symptoms. 

The new policy, approved Tuesday, requires all JCPS employees to be fully vaccinated by October 14. If they are not, the policy requires them to get tested for COVID-19 at least every other week. 

“Compliance with this requirement is a condition of employment with Jefferson County Public Schools,” the policy reads.

The district agreed to provide free COVID-19 testing for employees, in the classroom if necessary. Employees can also get tested on their own through a healthcare provider.

The district doesn’t know how many of its employees are already vaccinated, but about 70% signed up for the shots during the first phase of the vaccine rollout in January. 

JCPS has reached agreements with its employees’ various unions, including the Jefferson County Teacher Association and those representing non-teaching staff such as custodians and bus drivers.

The board passed the policy on a 6-1 vote. District 2 member Chris Kolb was the only no vote. He said the measure didn’t go far enough and should have required staff to get vaccinated, with no option to get tested as an alternative. 

Kolb also objected to the infrequency of the testing requirement.

“Testing every week to me is not frequent enough—two weeks is insane frankly,” he said, noting that people infected with COVID-19 can become contagious in as little as two days after exposure.

He said the policy was “providing somewhat of a false sense of security.”

Pollio said without the testing option the district risked losing employees amid an ongoing staffing shortage. He said the district landed on an every-other-week testing arrangement with union leaders who were concerned employees could face penalties if providers had delays in reporting their test results.

JCPS may be the first school district in the state to issue a vaccine-or-testing mandate. A spokesperson for the Kentucky School Boards Association said he is not aware of any other district with a similar policy on COVID-19 vaccination.

While JCPS may be the first in Kentucky, school districts in other parts of the country have mandated vaccines. Public schools in Los Angeles require all staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19, with no option to test as an alternative. Los Angeles Unified School District also requires all students 12 and up to get the COVID-19 vaccine or undergo regular testing.

Recent regulations announced by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration mean it’s possible that employees in all Kentucky school districts will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine or undergo regular testing. Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass says early communications from the Council of Chief State School Officers identify Kentucky as a state in which the new OSHA regulation will apply to public school systems.

However, Glass believes those regulations have the potential to be tied up in litigation. Several Republican governors have already vowed to sue the Biden administration.  

In the meantime, the Kentucky Department of Education is trying to incentivize employees to get vaccinated with a $100 payment for each vaccinated employee in participating school districts.

A vaccination requirement may be on the horizon for some JCPS students as well. At the request of District 3 Board member James Craig and Kolb, Pollio said he would look into requiring vaccinations or testing for students who participate in sports and extracurricular activities. 

“I do think it’s important that we explore that option, especially for indoor as winter comes,” he said. Winter sports include basketball, volleyball and wrestling.

Board approves new tax rate and $1.8 billion budget

Board members approved a $1.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2022, and a new property tax rate that will bring in an additional $20 million over last year’s rate.

The new tax rate of 79.6 cents per $100 assessed value is lower than last year’s rate of 80.6 cents. However, because property values have increased, the new rate will bring in a 4% increase in revenue. That’s the maximum amount school boards can increase revenues without making the tax rate subject to recall. 

A 9.5% tax increase faced a recall in 2020 and is still the subject of ongoing litigation by opponents. Votes on the recall measure were not counted after a judge found tax opponents had doctored voter information on the petition to help it pass muster.

The $1.8 billion budget the board approved includes spending increases on facilities and instructional costs.

Most of the district’s general fund comes from local property taxes: $789 million. Under the state’s school funding formula, known as SEEK, districts with higher property values receive less in state funding. $224 million comes from the state, and another $6.7 million comes from the federal government.

The district also receives hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government for special programs, such as meals and other services for low-income students.

In addition to the $1.8 billion budget, the board also approved a plan to spend $603 million in the federal coronavirus relief funding JCPS stands to receive. 

Staff say they plan to spend the federal funds on extending learning time, resourcing high-poverty schools, and workforce and leadership development.

Principals told the board they’ve used funding to extend services longer into the afternoon, hire more staff and update libraries with new furniture and reading materials.

 

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.