Education Health

More plans are emerging to possibly bring some students in Jefferson County Public Schools back to the classroom in late February or early March, if Kentucky stays on schedule in receiving shipments of the coronavirus vaccine.

The more vaccines JCPS can get into school employees’ arms, the more grade levels it can open to in-person instruction, according to JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio.

“This is giving us a lot of hope,” Pollio said of the vaccine during Tuesday night’s Jefferson County Board of Education meeting.

Gov. Andy Beshear has said he would like to begin Phase 1b vaccinations, which includes K-12 employees in late January or early February. Pollio told the board the earliest date for reopening would come after the first employees receive the booster shot 28 days later. 

Pollio said JCPS will likely be using the Moderna vaccine, which the FDA says is fully effective 7 days after the second dose. That would put the reopening around the first week of March at the earliest.

Pollio plans to open grade by grade, with the earliest grades first. The number of grades that could open at a time would be based on the number of available vaccines for teachers and staff.

Here’s the number of first-dose vaccines Pollio estimates it will take to open each grade level, assuming they receive a second dose 28 days later as well.

Kindergarten: 4,427

K-3: 5,600

K-5: 6,225

K-8: 8,650

K-12: 11,500

PreK: 515

Pollio said central office staff who do not work with children would be “at the back end” of the list for vaccinations. 

The district is also looking at ways to use the vaccination process to prioritize bringing back small groups of high needs students, such as those with disabilities, also known as ECE students.

“For example, if we said we only had enough to bring back pre-K through [third grade], we would bring back all of the elementary ECE students as well,” Pollio said.

According to Pollio, JCPS will be using the mass vaccination site at Broadbent Arena to inoculate employees. 

“They get the vaccination while sitting in their car. Then they pull out to the parking lot and wait about 15 minutes to 30 minutes…to make sure that there is no reaction to the vaccination,” he said.

Since the Broadbent Arena site is drive-thru, Pollio said the district is working on finding transportation for employees who do not have access to a vehicle.

And because vaccination is not an option for most students, Pollio said the district will continue to provide a fully virtual option for the remainder of the school year, and possibly into the 2021-2022 school year.

In a parent survey conducted before the vaccine rollout, 59% of families said they would choose in-person learning if it was an option, while 41% said they would remain virtual. Pollio said families may want to change their preferences based on the new availability of the vaccine.

According to the superintendent, Black families and other families of color were more likely to prefer the virtual option, “very understandably, because [coronavirus] is impacting [their] communities at higher rates,” he said.

Because the state gets a one-week notice of how many doses it will receive, Pollio said the district will have more information about how many grades it can open, and when, at the meeting on Jan. 19.

Not All JCPS Employees Have Agreed To Vaccination

The district has reserved 12,884 vaccines for JCPS employees who signed up to be immunized, and about an additional 900 for contractors who work in school buildings.

However, about 6,000 JCPS employees declined the vaccine or did not respond to the survey. 

Pollio said some of those 4,000 who did not respond to the survey could be substitute teachers or other part-time employees who do not plan to return.

According to an executive order from the governor, districts are not required to accommodate employees’ requests to work remotely if they have refused the vaccine, and do not have a condition that the CDC or FDA says prevents them from taking it.

JCPS attorney Kevin Brown said the district will try to work with employees who refuse the vaccine and request an accommodation to work remotely.

“We would have a discussion between management and the employee, as we would do with any accommodations, to see if there is an accommodation that meets their needs that doesn’t cause an undue hardship upon the employer,” Brown said.

Small Group Workouts Allowed For Winter Sports

Members of the Jefferson County Board of Education voted to begin allowing small group workouts for winter sports, including basketball, wrestling, swimming and competitive cheer. But the board decided to keep full practices and competitions postponed indefinitely, leaving JCPS among just a few Kentucky school districts not participating since the KHSAA voted to allow full practices to begin Dec. 14.

Board members were split on the decision to delay the season. Staff presented the board several options for winter sports, including some that would have allowed full practices to begin next week. 

Board member James Craig was among three members who said he supported allowing full practices on Jan. 11.

“I know that there is risk associated with it. But it seems to me to be a different question than coming back to in-person instruction because our student athletes are opting in,” Craig said.

Board member Joe Marshall agreed, saying he was encouraged by the relatively low level of spread recorded during fall sports. JCPS data shows they tracked 58 cases between July and November, among a total of 3,248 fall athletes.

Member Chris Kolb was among the majority of members who were more hesitant, noting that winter sports are played indoors, where the coronavirus spreads more easily, and that case numbers are much higher.

“I’m against allowing anything, for the time being,” Kolb said, “except perhaps for the small, pod conditioning.”

Board member Linda Duncan also was against beginning athletic practices or games, noting that some young people who have recovered from the virus have been shown to have dangerous lingering impacts, such as swelling of the heart.

“It terrifies me,” she said. “The thought of sending our athletes, who are not really going to have time to do a lot of conditioning…right back out onto the court.”

Board member Corrie Shull had the same concerns. 

“We are in dire, dire times,” he said.  “I think we must demonstrate taking precaution, and demonstrating that for our students and for this community.”

The board will monitor health data and reevaluate at its Jan. 19 meeting.

JCPS Bracing For Cuts

JCPS is facing a budget shortfall of $25 million dollars due to the pandemic, according to Pollio. And he is not convinced the millions in federal relief funding will be enough to plug the budget hole.

“This will support our students,” he said, “but we are going to have a tough budget cycle ahead that we’re going to have to make difficult decisions.” 

Much of the shortfall is due to a loss of revenue the district usually gets for providing free and reduced-priced lunches. The number of students going to meal pickup sites is just a small portion of the number of students who would normally be served in school. Because the federal government reimburses districts per meal served, they are getting $18 million less than anticipated in nutrition services revenue.

JCPS Chief Financial Officer Cordelia Hardin said $835 million is to be allocated to K-12 schools in Kentucky — several times more than was made available to schools in the first CARES package. In addition, the federal government will cover 55% of lost nutrition services revenue.

JCPS does not yet know what it’s allocation will be from the CARES package.

The board will see a draft budget at its next meeting.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.