The Jefferson County Board of Education (JCBE) voted unanimously Tuesday night to postpone in-person classes indefinitely as the county faces a rise in coronavirus cases. JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio is eyeing a phased-in return, beginning October 22, depending on the public health situation.
“We want to get our kids back in class as soon as possible, but we have to be committed to that priority number one, which is safety and health,” Pollio told the board.
On Tuesday, Jefferson County had more than 20 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, putting it in the orange, or “accelerated spread,” category on the state’s coronavirus dashboard.
Gov. Andy Beshear and state health officials say schools should not return to in-person learning unless their counties have fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 people, putting them in the green or yellow categories.
“Right now we are going in the wrong direction,” Pollio said.
While there is no firm date for a return, Pollio presented board members the possibility of starting a phased-in return on October 22. But he called that target date a “best-case scenario.”
Under the plan presented, elementary school and pre-K students would be the first to return.
“We know our younger students become more difficult on our families, and we would like to bring them back first,” Pollio said.
A week later, sixth-grade students and ninth-grade students would return, on October 29.
“They haven’t been in their new schools, we would allow them to transition into their new schools,” Pollio said.
Finally, on November 2, schools would bring back the remaining middle and high school students. Middle and high school students would be using a “hybrid” learning model, meaning students would alternate attending in-person and learning remotely. This allows schools to reduce class sizes. On remote days, Pollio said instruction would be “asynchronous,” meaning there wouldn’t be any live online instruction, and students would be completing work or learning on their own schedules.
In addition, all families would have the option of continuing instruction completely online through the “Virtual Academy.” Pollio estimates that between 30% and 50% of families would choose the virtual-only option based on a scan of other similar districts. Schools would provide virtual instruction through a web platform called Savvas Realize, which many schools are already using. Students in the Virtual Academy would remain tied to their school and receive instruction from their school’s teachers.
In the coming weeks, the district will be asking families to decide between in-person and virtual learning. Pollio said JCPS is “encouraging” parents to stick with their decision until at least the winter break. However, under state guidance the district has to allow families to switch if necessary.
Some specialized programs, like career courses and technical education, would not be offered through the Virtual Academy.
“Families will have to make some decisions about the specialized programs,” he said.
Schools would continue to offer special education and gifted and talented programs both in-person and in the Virtual Academy.
All board members expressed reservations about returning, given the current level of infection in Jefferson County.
“It’s very difficult for me to imagine any way that we can have any in-person offerings, if that rate does not come down sharply in the in the coming weeks,” member Chris Kolb said.
Board member Joe Marshall also expressed concerns about the logistics of coming back safely, “just trying to have, you know, the bus drivers, the bus monitors we need, the ventilation within our buildings,” he worried.
So far, according to Pollio, 2,200 total JCPS staff have filed for accommodations based on health concerns to remain out of the classroom ahead of a possible return.
Board member Chris Brady tried to get Pollio to give a specific metric that would trigger a return to in-person classes, such as number of days or weeks in the yellow on the state coronavirus dashboard. But Pollio declined to give a concrete answer.
“I’m giving the flexibility where it doesn’t have to be ‘x’ amount of days, but instead we have to be confident that the trend is is going down,” he said.
“I think the worst thing that would happen for us is if we implement, go back to school, and do it for a week or two, and that’s it–and then immediately come back out,” he said.
While Tuesday’s board vote extends NTI, Pollio said the board will have to come together for another vote to approve plans for a return. He has suggested the board make that decision in mid-October. More details would be presented at that time, he said.