Coronavirus Education

Families worried about the health risks of sending their kids to in-person classes in Jefferson County Public Schools have few options now that the district has run out of room in JCPS’ only fully virtual school.

Data obtained by WFPL shows more than a thousand students were waitlisted after JCPS announced August 19 that its online Pathfinder School of Innovation was full.

“We have more than 3,000 students enrolled and that exceeds the number of students we initially anticipated,” a message on the district’s website read.

District leaders say a teacher shortage forced them to cut off enrollment. Data obtained by WFPL shows the school has enrolled 3,115 students, and 1,089 students were waitlisted as of August 20.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said the district paused enrollment because it’s struggling to hire enough staff to meet the demand.

“We’re facing a teacher shortage as it is right now,” he said. “If we took a teacher from a school into Pathfinder, it creates a vacancy in a school.”

Back in the spring, JCPS, like most Kentucky school districts, planned on returning to a more-or-less “normal” school year this fall. COVID-19 vaccination rates were on the rise, infections were declining, and state lawmakers passed House Bill 208, which required districts to return to full capacity in-person learning by the fall. It also limited districts to 10 nontraditional instruction days, or NTI days, if they want to move to district-wide remote learning.

JCPS decided to expand its existing virtual school, Jefferson County High School, for families not yet ready for in-person learning. It rebranded the school the Pathfinder School of Innovation and extended its offerings from high school to lower grade levels.

In early June, just a few hundred students had signed up for Pathfinder, which at the time was only offered to grades 6-12. But in late July and early August, the delta variant of COVID-19 began to surge. Epidemiologists warned that more children and young people were at risk of becoming infected, especially since those under 12 were too young to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Demand for virtual learning increased. In early August, the Jefferson County Board of Education voted to expand the online school down to kindergarten. Within days, 1,207 new elementary students had applied. Middle school applications grew to 663 and high school applications to 977. Applications continued to roll in.

Pollio says students on the waitlist may still get into the program if the district finds more staff.

“We’re not saying no to them. We just gotta make sure we have the staffing that can support students as we go forward,” he said.

Until then, more than 1,000 waitlisted families have no choice but to send their kids in person.

As of Sunday afternoon, nearly 6,500 JCPS students had been quarantined since the start of the school year, and more than 1,300 have tested positive for COVID-19. Students who are quarantined do not enroll in Pathfinder, but complete assignments and talk to teachers remotely, similar to what students did during NTI.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.