Education

As the school-year draws to a close with students learning from home, planning is underway now for students to return in the fall. Big changes could await students, including policies around masks, smaller class sizes and a bigger curriculum. With little certainty about what the health situation will be in the fall, Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) Superintendent Marty Pollio told WFPL News the district of 98,000 students is planning for multiple scenarios. 

Start Date

Possibility 1:  Aug. 12  Pollio said the district is still hoping for a mid-August back-to-school date. The district’s current 2020-2021 calendar has students returning to class on Aug. 12. According to the White House guidance for reopening, schools and organized youth activities can be allowed to open in “Phase 2.” Gov. Andy Beshear is planning to bring Kentucky into Phase 1 on May 11. It’s not clear whether Beshear will reopen schools as part of Kentucky’s Phase 2. Pollio said it’s unlikely the district will be able to have in-person summer school in June or even July.

Possibility 2: Delayed Start Pollio said it is possible that the school year would be delayed by a resurgence of cases over the summer or based on other guidance from public health officials. 

“I think as we get into June, we’ll have some more discussions with health officials and see where we are at that point – if we need to make a determination to push that back,” Pollio said.

Possibility 3: Stop and Start  Pollio said the district is in a “dual planning process,” preparing to begin classes on August 12, but also bracing for a reemergence of the virus after the start of the school year.

“If this were to happen again, in the fall or the winter, we have to be much better prepared,” he said. 

That means being ready to move into nontraditional instruction (NTI) again at the drop of a hat.

“I mean, to the point where every kid walks out the door, whatever that day might be, with a Chromebook, so we’re not trying to patch that together at the last minute,” he said.

Pollio said he wants expanded Internet access and more devices available to students. But there are challenges, including “a run on hotspots” as districts around the country scramble to provide internet access to students.

Social Distancing

Schools are difficult places to enforce social distancing. But according to reporting from the New York Times and CNN, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has compiled draft guidance for the White House on reopening with recommendations for schools. The draft guidance says in the initial phases of reopening schools should:

  • space desks six feet apart
  • cancel field trips and school assemblies
  • have students eat lunch in their classrooms instead of the cafeteria
  • divide students into groups, and avoid interaction between them
  • create an “isolation room” for students who exhibit COVID-like symptoms

One option that’s been floated by the governor, according to Pollio, is to have fewer students in the school building at a time. The district could break students into groups and schedule them to come to school on alternating days, allowing for smaller class sizes. But this possibility doesn’t sit well with Pollio.

“I’m hoping that’s not the case because I do think it will be a logistics nightmare,” he said, noting the district’s size would create challenges. He also worries about logistics for families.

“How will parents be able to juggle work when their child may be going one day and not the next day?” he said.

Masks And Temperature Checks

The start of the 2020-2021 school year may bring new dress code rules – around face masks. 

The CDC recommends wearing a mask in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and Gov. Beshear is requiring people to wear masks in businesses and public spaces when the economy begins to reopen on May 11. Draft guidance from the CDC says school staff should wear masks, especially when social distancing is not feasible.

Pollio said the district is trying to figure out what the policy will be around masks, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

“When we say something like, ‘children will wear masks in school’ the logistics of that are pretty challenging,” he said.

“What do we do if they show up and don’t have one?” he asked “Do we turn them around and say, ‘You can’t come in’? Do we have 100,000 masks every day for kids?”

Pollio is also worried about safety issues with masks, saying it could make it difficult for staff to identify students in the building. In addition, getting students to keep their masks on all day would also be a major challenge, he said.

As for temperature checks, Pollio said the district is looking into buying thermometers. But mandatory temperature checks bring more questions.

“When a child gets off of the bus, and let’s say they do have that temperature, you know, then the challenge becomes, what do we do with them?” he said. A parent may not always be available to pick up the child, he said. 

Cleaning

The CDC has said frequent and adequate cleaning of schools will be key to containing the pandemic as the country reopens. But as reported by The Courier Journal, there have been concerns among JCPS teachers and students that even during district efforts to “double-down” on cleaning, school buildings were still dirty.

Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) president Brent McKim said that is one concern teachers have about reopening. 

“Do we have the custodial staff that we need to be able to wipe down all surfaces more frequently and with greater assurance?” he asked.

Pollio acknowledged the district has had difficulty hiring enough custodial staff in recent years.

“Yes, we need to hire more custodial staff. There is no doubt about it,” Pollio said. But he said with the downturn of the economy, the district will likely have a better chance competing with the private sector for janitorial staff. 

“If we get every custodial position filled, yes, there is no doubt that we will have the capacity to clean the schools,” he said.

Curriculum

Pretty much everyone acknowledges there will be big gaps in students’ learning as a result of the school closures. 

“Even though we have NTI, you can just not replace a child sitting in a classroom with a teacher every day,” Pollio said.

Officials at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) have started providing guidance to districts on how to work material from the 2019-2020 school year into the 2020-2021 school year.

“We’re going to have to really tighten up our 2020-21 curriculum to carve out the time we need to address those potential gaps from this school year,” KDE Division of Academic Program Standards’ Misty Higgins said on a webinar offered last week.

Higgins said schools will need to test students when they come back to find learning gaps. She said that teachers will need to work with teachers in grades above and below them to find out which gaps need to be addressed.

Fall Sports and Extracurriculars

Pollio said fall sports and extracurriculars like football, cheerleading and marching band are “in jeopardy.” Most fall sports teams begin summer training on July 15.

“I find it unlikely that we will start on the 15th, and you see college athletics even saying right now they don’t know if they’re going to have fall (sports),” Pollio said. 

He’s already worried about how a fall sports cancellation would impact students.

“All these kids…that’s really their sense of belonging at the school, is participating in these extracurricular activities,” he said. 

“But that’s another road we’re going to have to navigate,” he said.

When Will We Know?

It could be some time before we know how fall 2020 will look. The district says it will make many of the decisions on masks, temperature checks and start dates based on direction from the governor and state and local health officials. Guidance from those corners has been in constant flux as the pandemic evolves and scientists learn more about the virus. 

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.