Two prominent Kentucky public health officials are recommending Jefferson County Board of Education open classes to in-person learning once staff are vaccinated.
Louisville Metro Public Health and Wellness Director Dr. Sarah Moyer and Kentucky Deputy Commissioner for Public Health Dr. Connie White told the school board they believe JCPS should open, even though the county has seen months of uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus.
“There’s just a whole list of reasons that, with mitigations in place, it is much safer to open schools at this point than to not open them,” White told the board at its Tuesday night meeting.
She pointed to the mental health challenges students are facing with schools closed, and the likelihood that signs of child abuse are going undetected.
Moyer also recommended reopening, saying that Louisville’s private schools have “shown that school can be safe,” even when the county is in the “deep red.”
“We’ve not had any super-spreading events here locally, besides a few isolated cases,” she said, adding that most spread in private school communities was happening from sports or close contact outside of school hours.
Additionally, she said that she’s seen “very little spread” from children to adults in the in-person school setting.
“Almost all the cases where we have things right in school, it’s from the adult to the child,” she said. Moyer said she hopes that information, in addition to the vaccine, should put staff members more at ease about returning to school buildings.
According to the state’s K-12 dashboard, the Archdiocese of Louisville, which has been operating classes in person throughout the pandemic, has reported a total of 352 coronavirus cases among students, and 88 cases among staff since the beginning of the pandemic.
The officials’ recommendation comes as board members mull a return to the classroom. Kentucky is among a number of states that has prioritized getting K-12 staff vaccinated in hopes of opening school buildings. JPCS staff vaccinations are underway, and JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio said the district should be finished with first-round injections by the middle of next week.
Pollio plans to bring the board a recommendation to reopen buildings once staff receive their second-round injections. But the start date will depend on when those second-round injections can be delivered.
“Until we can guarantee that the booster comes in, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to bring a start date,” Pollio said.
Feb. 19 is the earliest the booster would be available. That would put a possible reopening date in mid-March.
A Dose of Skepticism
Some board members received Moyer and White’s recommendation with skepticism.
The coronavirus vaccine is 95% effective in preventing serious illness and death, but it is not clear yet whether it prevents transmission of the disease. District 2 board member Chris Kolb said he’s heard from many teachers who are worried that even with the vaccine, they could still catch the virus at school and transmit it to unvaccinated people in their household.
“It’s an expectation that our state is unrealistic to have, that just because teachers are vaccinated, that they should then be willing to put their families at risk,” he said.
District 6 board member Corrie Shull said he also worried the vaccine and health guidelines would not be enough to prevent spread, and he pushed back against the idea that a reopening is needed to address a mental health crisis.
“I have connections with students in JCPS who have lost parents, who have lost grandparents,” Shull said. “That’s a mental health crisis.”
Shull also noted that Black and Latinx people are more likely to refuse the vaccine, putting them and their families more at risk if they return to work.
Even if classrooms reopen, all students will still have the option to remain virtual. Kolb said this could create another racial equity issue, since white families were much more likely to want to return to in-person classes than Black families.
“It’s going to be a tremendous amount of work to essentially manage in-person education in the midst of a pandemic, and it’s disproportionately going to be our whiter, wealthier families and our whiter, wealthier communities that are benefiting from that,” he said.
Kolb also pointed out that CDC guidelines say school systems should base their reopening decisions on the local positivity rate. But Jefferson County doesn’t calculate one.
“It’s a big piece of missing data that we have,” he said.
What does research say?
The research on COVID-19 transmission and schools is very limited, given the newness of the virus and the lack of data from school districts or the federal government. But the few studies we have are mixed.
A study out of Michigan State University found that school openings were not associated with higher infection rates if community spread was low to begin with. But researchers found increased infection associated with school openings if the community spread was already moderate or high.
A Harvard University study of Florida school districts found those that held in-person class saw a subsequent increase in infection rates in school-aged children. One CDC study in rural Wisconsin found little evidence tying reopenings to increased infection. However, another CDC study in the same state found that 5,700 COVID cases were linked to schools or childcare facilities.
Meanwhile, a recent opinion piece from a CDC researcher asserts “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” That piece cites several studies in different states, including Mississippi, North Carolina, and the rural Wisconsin study, which found relatively low rates of transmission within schools relative to the community.
Moyer notes that all of these studies were completed before the vaccine rollout.
Board members will meet again this month to further discuss the reopening decision.