Education Health

In the first nine days of the new school year, Jefferson County Public Schools quarantined 1,853 students and staff, and confirmed 433 cases of COVID-19. Parents and district leaders worry it may point to a rocky school year ahead, while the delta variant rages.

Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary School third grader Snow Castillo was excited to go back to school last Wednesday. She said she got to see her friend Abby again and check out her new classroom on the second floor, with the big kids. But on Friday her teacher gave her some bad news: she’d been exposed to COVID-19 and would have to quarantine until she got a negative test.

“It’s like two days and then it’s like, ‘bye bye!’” Snow explained to WFPL News by phone.

“Like, literally, can I at least get like three days of just being in school, peaceful, nothing happening that’s weird? No. No, I can’t. I guess I can’t,” she said. 

Students have to quarantine if they spend a cumulative 15 minutes within three feet of an infected person. Snow is one of at least 945 JCPS students who were quarantined in the first five days of the school year. More than 250 had tested positive. By Thursday evening, the number of quarantined students had grown to more than 1,784 and 376 students had tested positive. The district has about 92,000 students enrolled.

Snow’s dad, Kristan Castillo, said fortunately his work schedule is flexible. He was able to pick Snow up from school and stay home with her during the quarantine period.

“I can imagine how hard that would be for other people who didn’t have that schedule, you know? That freedom,” he said.

With so many students quarantined in the first week, some district leaders are wondering how long in-person learning can last. 

“I’m worried … as the numbers continue to grow … at some point, we’re going to reach this breaking point,” District 3 Jefferson County Board of Education member James Craig said at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Some Kentucky districts have already reached their breaking point. Lee County Schools and Knott County Schools each shut down in-person learning for several days after dozens of students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 or had to quarantine.

“This will be a tough year and we don’t want to have to shut down this early,” Lee County Schools superintendent Sarah Wasson wrote in a message to families, “but if we can determine who is positive now we believe we can stay in school longer.”

JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio told board members Tuesday that if the district comes to a breaking point, it will likely be because of personnel shortages. Sick or quarantined teachers can’t teach in-person classes. And sick or quarantined bus drivers can’t drive students to school.

“Staffing is the one that really puts us in jeopardy, because we’re already short as it is,” he said. 

Pollio said staff vaccinations are key to avoiding personnel shortages, since vaccinated staff members don’t have to quarantine when they are exposed, as long as they don’t have symptoms. They’re also much less likely to contract the disease. But the vaccine isn’t mandatory. JCPS doesn’t keep records on how many of its staff are vaccinated but so far 66 staff members have tested positive for the virus, out of about 18,000 employees. And an additional 52 are quarantined. 

Castillo remains optimistic that school can stay in-person and that his daughter won’t face repeated quarantines. Her test came back negative.

“My hope is that this is sort of a once-off, or a very rare sort of thing. But at the end of the day, that’s just hope,” he said. He said he’s prepared if the district goes into nontraditional instruction, or NTI—the remote and hybrid learning models schools used during the last two school years.

But switching to remote instruction has its own hurdles. State law requires 170 days a year of in-person instruction. Last year, state lawmakers granted school districts unlimited NTI days so that students could learn remotely and prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

But in March of this year, when infections were falling and vaccinations were rising, lawmakers passed House Bill 208, legislation meant to return to the regular 10-day limit. 

Since then, the virus has surged again, with the contagious delta variant bringing Kentucky’s test positivity rate to 12.75%—the state’s highest ever. More patients are being hospitalized, including children

JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio said if the district does want to go remote, they’ll need action from the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) or Gov. Andy Beshear.

Reached for comment, KDE spokesperson Toni Konz Tatman said the department has already heard from some districts “about the need for flexible scheduling.” 

“Throughout HB 208, the General Assembly suggested its preference for in-person learning during the 2021-2022 school year. However, the General Assembly’s language in HB 208 regarding NTI is less suggestive of an absolute prohibition on any more than 10 days,” she wrote.

Konz Tatman said KDE staff are “reviewing all options.”

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.