Education

The Jefferson County Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday night to begin the 2020-2021 school year online. The vote comes as coronavirus cases are rising in Jefferson County, the state, and the nation.

“We cannot be willing to accept a single illness or a single death to get back into the school building,” board member James Craig said before the vote.

Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) Superintendent Marty Pollio’s plan, which was approved through Tuesday’s vote, calls for spending the first six weeks of the year in remote instruction.

Pollio said a major factor in his recommendation was the unknown long-term impacts of COVID-19 on adults and young people.

“We don’t know the extent of our vulnerability, and who may be impacted, and who may have long-term consequences,” he said.

A district survey shows staff likely support the decision. Of 11,273 JCPS staff surveyed, a majority (56%) said they would be “uncomfortable” returning to work in-person. Teachers were the staff members most against returning to in-person classes, with 60% saying they would be uncomfortable. The survey also found nearly a third of JCPS teachers consider themselves at-risk of complications due to COVID-19.

All seven JCPS board members expressed strong support for Pollio’s recommendation.

With the vote, JCPS, the state’s largest district, joins many other big, urban school systems in deciding to start the year fully online, including in Nashville, Los Angeles, Houston and Atlanta.

Here is what you need to know about JCPS’ plan for the school year:

Start Date

The board voted to push the start date back two weeks, from Aug. 12 to Aug. 25. Staff will still start the year on Aug. 10. JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said this will give staff time to train and plan for remote instruction, which the state calls “nontraditional instruction” (NTI).

NTI will last for at least the first six weeks of the school year. The district will re-evaluate the public health outlook every six weeks for a possible return to in-person classes. Pollio has said he does not have a specific metric for making that determination, but that the decision will be based on the number of coronavirus cases.

The last day of school is scheduled for May 27 for students, and May 28 for staff.

If the district does go back to in-person classes, officials said there would still be a 100% online option for families who don’t feel comfortable returning.

Instruction

Students will be in NTI until at least October. JCPS Chief Academic Officer Carmen Coleman said this fall’s NTI will not look like it did in the spring, when the district had just two weeks to put together a remote learning plan. Coleman call’s this year’s remote learning plan “NTI 2.0.”

“We want to ensure that the learning experience is just as personalized, and rich and engaging as it would be in the physical school building,” Coleman said.

The year’s NTI is supposed to be more “synchronous,” meaning teachers and students will be online at the same time together. NTI in the spring was mostly “asynchronous”: teachers sent assignments to students to complete on their own schedules.

Instruction will rely heavily on technology, Coleman said. However, she said, “we are not recommending that any students spend all day, every day, on the computer.” Rather the district is encouraging teachers to assign project-based assignments, she said.

JCPS is working to make the online resources, tools and platforms teachers use more standardized than they were during NTI this past spring, Coleman said.

“One of the things we heard from our parent survey is that there were too many resources and platforms to try to navigate, especially in families that might have had students at various levels and in different schools,” she said.

While the district envisions nearly all students using online platforms to participate in NTI, JCPS will make paper-based materials available as well in case students have trouble accessing the internet.

Schools are expected to host online or in-person orientation and training sessions for parents before the start of school to share NTI plans and show parents how to log-in and access all the online platforms that will be used.

Pollio said there may be some opportunities for schools to host in-person orientations for small groups of young students.

“We want young kids especially to be able to put a name and a face together with the teacher,” Pollio said.

Attendance

Students will be expected to participate daily in online or remote learning. Teachers will record daily participation in lieu of attendance. Participation is mandatory, and state officials say truancy laws will apply during NTI. There are four ways students can participate under state guidelines:

  • A one-on-one student-teacher web conference or phone call; or one-on-one parent-teacher web conference or phone call.
  • Participation in an online web conference with a class, such as a Google Hangout.
  • Time spent completing assignments on an online platform, such as Google Classroom.
  • Turning in a paper-based assignment. This would likely be collected weekly, and students would be retroactively marked as having participated.

“Participation” is a separate measure from a student’s grade. Teachers will still evaluate the quality of student work through grading. Grading practices will be “more clearly defined and communicated” than they were in the spring, according to a JCPS manual on the 2020-21 school year.

Devices & Internet

In order to move to a more robust online learning plan, district officials acknowledge there is a critical need for each student to have high-speed internet access and a device. Pollio said JCPS is prepared to get a Chromebook to every student who needs one. The district has purchased 30,000 Chromebooks to add to its existing 40,000. There are about 65,000 students who are low-income.

One problem — many of those devices may not arrive until the spring, due to a national run on Chromebooks.

“It’s a real issue,” JCPS Chief Operating Officer Chris Perkins said.

Connectivity is a greater challenge. A recent study by an advocacy group found 36% of Kentucky students don’t have internet access adequate for online learning. JCPS has purchased 11,000 WiFi hotspots, but it’s not enough to meet the need, and is only a “short-term” solution, according to JCPS Chief Information Officer Kermit Belcher.

Pollio has called on the city, private internet companies and community partners to help expand access to JCPS students.

Because some students may struggle to get internet access, the district is making paper-based assignments and materials available as well.

Special Populations

Schools will be expected to provide special education services throughout NTI. The district is prioritizing special education students when it comes to WiFi hotspot distribution. But Pollio said the district will also look for opportunities to provide some special education services in-person at “learning hubs,” depending on public health guidance and staffing. Other high-needs students may be invited to learning hubs as well, including English Language Learners, struggling students and homeless students. About 6,000 JCPS students are homeless.

“What we would like to do is have opportunities for kids to receive services, meals, access to WiFi or computers if they need it,” Pollio said.

Learning hubs would have smaller numbers than a normal class, he said, and students would be spread throughout the building, which could be a school or another community partner.

Pollio said he may have to work with the Jefferson County teacher’s union to create an additional stipend for teachers who are willing to work in the learning hubs.

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Meal Distribution

Just as in the spring, JCPS will offer breakfast and lunch to all students at dozens of emergency feeding sites throughout the district on every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

There are about 65,000 low-income students who rely on JCPS for at least one hot meal a day through the federal National School Lunch Program.

Work For Non-Teaching Staff

District officials say they are still developing a plan to keep non-teaching staff such as bus drivers and janitors employed.

“We are working with the unions on possible other responsibilities for people
during this time where they’ll still be able to be employed,” Pollio said.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.