School districts and private schools are planning for a massive statewide COVID-19 vaccination effort of teachers and other school staff. Districts have been asked to submit a roster to the Kentucky Department of Public Health by the end of the month of employees to be vaccinated.
“We do have a light at the end of the tunnel,” Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) superintendent Marty Pollio said during a Tuesday evening Jefferson County Board of Education (JCBE) meeting. “We don’t know where that light is yet. It will all depend upon the amount of doses of vaccine that we get in, and how quickly we can get it to our employees.”
Under the state’s vaccination plan, educators and school staff are in the “Phase 2” group to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, after frontline healthcare workers, long-term care residents and other certain critical or vulnerable populations.
The two COVID-19 vaccines, developed by Pzifer and Moderna, have been shown to be more than 90% effective at preventing people from developing symptoms of the coronavirus. It is not yet clear whether the vaccine prevents people from carrying and transmitting the virus without symptoms.
The state guidance document, released Tuesday, directs districts to compile a list of all school-based employees, including teachers, substitutes, administrators, janitors and nutrition workers, who wish to be vaccinated during the “educator distribution period.” The vaccine will be available to staff at both public and private schools. The JCBE spent much of their meeting discussing the vaccination plan.
“We have not been given specific information about what vaccine we will get, and when we will get it,” Pollio told the board. Later he added that the “best-case scenario” would be for educator vaccinations to begin the third or fourth week in January.
Kentucky Department of Public Health (KDPH) officials said when the time comes, the vaccine will be provided at no cost to schools. They have until Dec. 30 to submit their list of employees.
Pollio said the district is planning to survey staff over the next three days to find out how many staff want to take the vaccine, which won’t be mandatory. Officials at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) said Tuesday that as employers, schools will have to allow for an exemption for employees with religious objections to vaccination, or disabilities.
Pollio said he encourages all staff to get vaccinated nonetheless.
“It will be the quickest way to mitigation of that spread of the virus so that we can open our schools back up quickly,” he said.
JCPS, the state’s largest district, has been in remote learning since March.
To deliver the vaccine to educators, JCPS staff are working with Louisville Metro Health and Wellness to plan a potential drive-through vaccination event. The city would hold a second drive-through vaccination event for the second shot 21 days later.
Two weeks after the second dose, when the vaccine is fully effective, Pollio said JCPS could open schools for select groups of primary students. Pollio said ideally, the district would start with students in pre-K to third grade, and then add subsequent grades in later weeks. The number of students allowed to return would depend on the number of teachers the district could vaccinate. All students will have the option to remain in remote instruction.
It’s unlikely the city will receive enough vaccines for all JCPS educators and school staff at once. Pollio said the district would divide staff into groups and repeat the vaccination cycle as many times as needed until all school staff are vaccinated.
Under Gov. Andy Beshear’s latest recommendation, schools must accommodate staff members’ requests to work remotely if they have not been offered a vaccine and fall into the high-risk category for coronavirus. JCPS has 3,000 staff in the at-risk category, including nearly 2,000 teachers, according to Pollio.
Return to school plans
A return to in-person classes is unlikely for JCPS by Jan. 11 — the earliest date for a return to the classroom under Beshear’s latest recommendation.
“As we move into post-holiday spread, I do not see where we will be dropping into a safe area [on] January 11,” Pollio said. “I do see our quickest path to returning to school is the vaccine.”
Pollio said schools have received “mixed messages” from federal authorities, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the White House, about whether it is safe to open schools. But he said he agrees with the latest comment from White House coronavirus response coordinator Deborah Birx, who said Tuesday that schools should wait to reopen until community spread is under control.
“I don’t think there’s any agency that would consider the community spread in Jefferson County under control at this time, with 60 cases per 100,000 for the past several weeks, and a statewide positivity rate of 8.5%,” Pollio said.
Meanwhile, KDE officials said Beshear is mulling an executive order that will make parts of the “Healthy At School” guidelines mandatory starting on Jan. 4. Beshear already announced his move to make the guidelines mandatory Monday as part of updated “recommendations.” But Monday’s announcement did not have the force of law, according to KDE officials.
Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass said only a portion of the guidelines are expected to become mandatory: those labeled “expectations” in the guidance document. The expectations are mostly around cleaning, mask-wearing and social distancing. But many of the expectations, especially on distancing, allow for wiggle room. For example, the guidance allows schools to space desks “as far apart as possible,” if there is not enough space to allow for the recommended 6 feet.
Portions of the guidelines called “best practices” would remain optional but encouraged.
While the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) board of control voted to allow winter sports practices this week, Pollio said JCPS will not allow any winter sports participation until January at the earliest.
His decision drew mixed reaction from school board members. Board member James Craig worried about the possibility that a winter sports season may not happen if the health situation does not improve.
“If there’s any way to allow these kids to compete, I would love to see them have that opportunity. So are we perhaps thinking about evaluating each individual sport… and making a surgical approach instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to all of our winter sports to see if there’s any way that we could pursue them in January?” Craig asked.
Board member Joe Marshall was more hesitant to allow for winter sports.
“No matter what we do, someone’s going to have to sacrifice something,” Marshall said. “And I think the best decision is not sacrificing lives for the sake of, you know, individual or team accolades.”
Pollio said staff would reevaluate in January, and said he was open to finding ways for some form of winter sports to move forward.