LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – State and local health officials say they believe Jefferson County Public Schools can safely reopen classrooms once employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and public health guidance is followed inside schools.
Members of the Jefferson County Board of Education questioned Dr. Sarah Moyer, Louisville Metro’s chief health strategist, and Dr. Connie White, deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Public Health, for more than two hours during a meeting Tuesday.
Vaccinations for more than 13,000 JCPS teachers, staff and contractors are underway at Louisville Metro’s drive-thru site in Broadbent Arena, and Superintendent Marty Pollio said he will bring recommended starting dates for in-person classes to the board for a vote once the district knows how many vaccine boosters will be available for its employees.
Teachers and staff who work in elementary schools and early childhood programs got their first doses of Moderna’s vaccine last week, and employees in middle and high schools are scheduled for their initial shots this week.
Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine requires a 28-day wait before boosters can be administered, and Pollio said a staggered reopening could begin in elementary schools two weeks later pending board approval. The district expects about 60% of students will return to schools if they reopen based on districtwide survey results.
Both White and Moyer said JCPS can safely reopen schools to students and staff with a combination of COVID-19 vaccinations and mitigation efforts inside buildings.
“The vaccine is an extra tool,” Moyer said. “It’s not the reason why we are recommending or the CDC has recommended or the state has recommended that schools are safe to go back.
“… We’ve shown over the last year that if you have the proper mitigation factors in place it is safe, and we haven’t seen spread coming back to family members from school,” she added. “We have seen spread coming back from those families getting together with other families or letting their kids have a slumber party or participate in club sports.”
The debate over reopening schools at JCPS has intensified at recent board meetings. Chris Kolb, the board’s vice chairman who represents District 2, moved to suspend winter sports activities at JCPS except for small-group workouts based on a recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that, in part, found indoor sports increase COVID-19 transmission risk at schools.
Kolb and Corrie Shull, who represents District 6, were the only board members who voted against resuming winter sports at JCPS on Jan. 19, and they were the only votes in favor of significantly limiting athletics activities Tuesday.
“I just want this board to be clear that this is the CDC saying if you allow sports, you are in their words jeopardizing the safe operation of in-person education, and if that’s our goal, to return to the safe operation of in-person education, then we cannot be having sports,” Kolb said.
Kolb is the only board member so far to publicly express doubt about reopen classrooms at JCPS given Jefferson County’s recent COVID-19 caseloads. He cited other concerns about resuming in-person instruction, such as protections for employees who live with high-risk family members and providing equitable learning experiences for students.
Board member Linda Duncan, who represents District 5, worried that students would not follow public health guidance like wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, and she questioned why people 70 and older were not vaccinated before teachers. Both groups are in Kentucky’s second-highest tier for vaccine distribution.
“We have so many grandparents out here who are working with kids right now and probably should have gone before teachers,” she said. “… Some of them are full-time caregivers, and some of them are just handling it right now.”
White said the state wanted to develop a vaccination strategy that would “get children back in school as quickly as possible.”
The Kentucky Department of Education collected rosters from school districts of more than 82,000 employees who wanted COVID-19 vaccinations. Gov. Andy Beshear has said he expects school workers throughout Kentucky will receive their first vaccine doses by Friday.
“We are one of the highest states in the nation with grandparents raising children, so we’re aware of that information and see that as critically important, which is why our big push now is to make sure that we get the over 70 population vaccinated,” White said.
Board member James Craig, who represents District 3, worried that a more prolonged closure at JCPS will harm students mentally, citing a study published in December by the American Academy of Pediatrics that found an uptick in youth suicide attempts in 2020 may be linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While she could not provide specific data, White said youth suicide attempts have increased in Kentucky recently. She also said the number of children who have not been observed by adults and may be victims of abuse “terrifies” her.
“There’s just a whole list of reasons that we feel that with mitigation in place, it is much safer to open schools at this point than to not open them,” White said.
Pollio has said he will offer his recommendation on reopening schools either at the board’s Feb. 16 meeting or at a special meeting called this month. He told the board that his recommended reopening plan will be presented ahead of a vote.
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