Education

Jefferson County Public Schools will bring students back to the classroom beginning March 17, for the first time in over a year. The state’s largest school district has been closed to in-person learning since last March, when schools across the state shut their doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Jefferson County Board of Education passed a reopening plan in a 4-3 vote Thursday night after hours of debate.

“We got it passed, we’re going back to school,” JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said.

The board approved a version of the plan Pollio has been crafting for months, but with one major change: elementary schools, which were to go back five days a week under Pollio’s original plan, will be on rotating A/B hybrid schedule, along with middle and high schools. There will be an exception for elementary school students with disabilities, or ECE students, who will be offered five days a week.

The change was added in a late-hour amendment offered by District 3 member James Craig, the board’s most vocal proponent of returning to in-person learning. Craig said the amendment was meant to address concern about classroom density in elementary schools, some of which anticipated nearly 80 percent of students selecting the in-person option. 

Under the hybrid model, the elementary schools will operate on the same schedule as middle and high schools. Students will be split into an A group and a B group based on the first letter of their last name. Group A will attend school in person on Monday and Tuesday while group B is remote. Wednesday is a remote learning day for all students. And on Thursday and Friday group B is in-person while A is remote.

Students will return to the classroom on the following schedule:

  • Grades K-2: March 17
  • Grades 3-5: March 18
  • Pre-K and early childhood: March 22
  • Middle and high school: April 5

All students will have the option to remain in the virtual setting.

Pollio and other district staff said they believe they can make a hybrid option work for elementary school students by a March 17 reopen date, though there are still questions about how it will work with staffing, and whether the plan for ECE students is legal under federal disability laws.

‘A life and death decision’

The split vote came after hours of discussion in which several board members, including District 4 member Joe Marshall, expressed frustration with the lack of information offered by JCPS staff when members had questions about pieces of the plan.

“This decision is a life and death decision, and it is time for honesty,” Marshall after staff continued to give vague or non-answers to questions members have been asking for weeks about staffing and facilities. The district is down more than a hundred custodians, more than a hundred bus drivers and is still looking for dozens of school nurses.

Marshall ultimately supported the reopening plan in the deciding vote. He appeared close to tears and visibly pained in the several silent moments before he delivered his “yes” vote. Then he bowed his head, and folded his hands over his face.

District 5 member Linda Duncan also voted to reopen. For many weeks, Duncan has expressed concern that she felt board members were being called on to make “medical decisions.” She worried about the possibility that reopening could increase community spread of COVID-19, and was especially concerned about whether students will comply with mask-wearing. But she said the health experts brought into Tuesday night’s meeting allayed her concerns.

“I drew a great deal of comfort from their assurances that this can be done in a safe way,” she said. Duncan also worried that a failure to move forward on the reopening plan could put the district at odds with the state legislature again. House lawmakers passed a bill Wednesday that would require districts to offer at least two days a week of in-person learning to all students by March 29.

“We have to face the reality that we have a legislature that is getting ready to pass a law that will require us to open,” Duncan said.

Craig, who voted for the reopening plan, said he also felt confident in the reopening decision after hearing from several prominent health experts that “it would be better for our students to return to in-person learning than not.” 

District 7 member Sarah Cole McIntosh said she voted yes because she’s concerned that students’ needs are going unmet, including students with disabilities, and students with language barriers.

“The students who are in most need of services are the ones who are right now not receiving them,” she said. “Kids who live with their grandparents. Well, a lot of grandparents don’t know how to utilize a computer. They don’t know how to help those kids log on.”

The reopening plan passed without the support of board chair Diane Porter, who represents District 1, where she said health care and vaccination access are “less than.” She worries the district is unprepared for a reopening given the staffing and facility concerns, and important details that were unavailable to board members during meetings.

“We have not drilled down on those things, necessarily. Yesterday I visited two of my schools, and they’re not ready to open,” she said.

She rejected the notion offered by Craig and Duncan that the state legislature has tied the district’s hands.

“As we have gone through this process, I have heard from the community that our vote does not matter, that Frankfort tells us what to do. Our vote does matter. We are elected to speak for our constituents and our students,” she said.

District 6 member Corrie Shull also voted against the plan. Shull is the pastor of Burnett Avenue Baptist Church, where he has lost many members to COVID-19. He’s concerned about staffing and facility challenges, and frustrated that the district has not sought to prioritize the neediest students.

“My concern about the plan, as it has been presented, is that it does not prioritize the children who are most vulnerable: the children who have most consistently been failed by JCPS and other educational institutions,” he said 

Shull wanted the district to design a plan that targeted students most in need of in-person learning for a return: struggling students, low-income students, English-language learners and students with disabilities, for example.

District 2 member Chris Kolb agreed, and voted against the plan as well, saying he thought this was the first time “Dr. Pollio being a white male has led to a poor and inequitable decision.”

“This plan is not what is best for disadvantaged students and their families,” Kolb said. “This plan is what is best for non-disadvantaged students and their families, who also happen to be the most vocal minority in JCPS.”

After the plan passed, the board passed another motion calling on Pollio to create a “comprehensive plan to promote equity” in the reopening.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story contained a typo incorrectly stating the grades returning on March 18. It has been corrected.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.