LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Despite a surge of COVID-19 cases in Louisville, Kentucky's largest school district plans to reopen to in-person classes Tuesday as scheduled.
Jefferson County Public Schools told families Sunday evening it is "continually reviewing data to understand COVID’s impact on our school community."
The omicron variant of COVID-19 helped push local positivity rates to record highs over winter break, leaving some parents concerned about a potential return to virtual learning and the district's mitigation efforts.
JCPS reported a 21.6% positivity rate from more than 6,400 tests given at its testing sites Sunday. Students, staff and family members were eligible for the tests.
Kentucky saw almost 30,000 new cases last week, Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday afternoon — double the case total from the week prior. The state's positivity rate is at a record-high 21%, he said.
"Omicron has not only come to the commonwealth, it has hit us harder in terms of escalation of cases than anything we have seen today," Beshear said.
Schools not having universal mask policies, given low vaccination rates for school-age kids, Beshear said, is "going to make it very, very difficult to continue what I want to see, which is our kids in school with in-person learning."
"We got to have our kids in school, folks," Dr. Steven Stack, the state's top health official, said Monday afternoon.
If a school district opens this week without requiring masks, he said, "you're going to infect the whole building in the first two weeks."
As kids prepare to head back to class, here's what parents should know:
How is JCPS addressing the omicron variant?
Expect JCPS' COVID-19 plan of attack to remain how it was in the fall.
In a message to families Sunday, JCPS outlined existing mask, testing and vaccine policies. It did not share new ways of ensuring those policies are fully enforced — something teachers said has become an issue in recent weeks — or new mitigation efforts.
Requiring everyone in schools, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a mask;
Offering voluntary COVID-19 testing to all students and staff, both in school and at drive-thru sites after school;
Encouraging, but not requiring, those eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine — anyone 5 years or older — to receive it.
Around 90% of district employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, JCPS told families. Staff are required to undergo regular testing if not fully vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.
The district's "test-to-stay" and "test-to-play" programs will continue in the new year. If a student tested positive for COVID-19 over the break and was told to quarantine, they can test at a JCPS testing site. If they test negative, they can head to class Tuesday under the "test-to-stay" program, the district says.
School board member James Craig tweeted Sunday that JCPS is "the one place that takes COVID mitigation and safety more serious than any other in Louisville."
"We've offered vaccine clinics," he continued. "We've offered free testing to the community. We've used our federal dollars for these things, while others stash that money for other purposes.
"Who is doing more than JCPS?" Craig asked in a subsequent tweet.
Interested in education? Sign up for our education newsletter, The Hall Pass
Has JCPS changed quarantine policies?
JCPS has not updated its quarantine policies to match recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying it is waiting on state health officials to make that call.
"Until we receive this from the state, we will continue to follow the existing guidance of a 10 day quarantine for those who test positive," the district told families.
Last month, the CDC cut the amount of time those who test positive for COVID-19 or are exposed should isolate or quarantine from 10 days to five.
But the guidance for K-12 schools remains unchanged, partially due to low vaccination rates and struggles with masking at certain parts of the school day, like lunch.
How many COVID-19 cases are in JCPS?
As of Monday afternoon, there were 938 positive COVID-19 cases among JCPS students and staff — the highest ever number of active cases in JCPS.
Another 284 students and staff are in quarantine, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard.
New cases and quarantines found at JCPS testing sites on Sunday were being added to the dashboard Monday, district spokesman Mark Hebert said. The dashboard also includes any cases and quarantines self-reported by families and staff.
Search the data: How many COVID-19 cases, quarantines are in your school
Can JCPS return to NTI?
Yes, JCPS can return to nontraditional instruction.
All school districts get 10 NTI days under state law to use for districtwide virtual learning. JCPS has not used any of its 10 days allotted for this school year.
"Schools are preparing to have the necessary technology in students’ hands and implement their NTI plans almost immediately" should JCPS announce a pivot to NTI, Hebert said.
JCPS is also able to close schools like they would for a snow day. Since the district's school year is four days longer than what state law requires, the school board could forgive four days without students needing to make them up. Missed days can also be made up at the end of the school year.
Districts can no longer use targeted remote learning days, which allowed them to switch individual schools or student groups to remote instruction due to COVID-19 without closing all schools. The targeted days, which state lawmakers created in a special legislative session in September, expired on Dec. 31.
Lawmakers could restore that option when they begin the 2022 legislative session Tuesday. Board member Sarah McIntosh tweeted last week that she hopes large districts gain the ability to temporarily move to virtual instruction if needed.
Board member Chris Kolb tweeted Sunday he would prefer the district delay reopening a few days to allow everyone time to get tested for COVID-19.
But, he continued, JCPS has limited days that can be used for virtual learning or be excused, and state lawmakers have "shown virtually no interest in helping us keep kids safe by granting more flexibility."
"The bottom line is that the federal, state, and city government have completely abandoned their responsibility and left our kids and schools out in the cold with no good options," Kolb tweeted.
Some teachers pushed board members to consider using the days the district knows it has this week.
"I know our days our limited, but opening now would endanger schools & strain the city," Liz Palmer, a journalism teacher at duPont Manual, tweeted Monday.
Matilda Ertz, a teacher at duPont Manual and Lincoln Performing Arts School, responded, "We should use them when we know they will be effective. They will be effective during the current omicron spike. Period."
What are parents' concerns?
Concerns from parents, teachers and students range from health worries to fears of a return to virtual learning, and basically everything in between.
Several parents fear reopening to in-person learning will cause the omicron variant to spread, causing already high positivity rates to climb.
Citing reports of hourslong lines to get tested at JCPS sites over the weekend, some question if JCPS has the capacity to test enough to safely keep kids in school.
Hebert said JCPS and its testing partner, SphereDX, expanded testing hours at five schools Monday to accommodate the demand. They could expand hours again in the future if needed, he said.
Others are worried quarantines will worsen existing staffing woes, potentially to the point schools won't have enough teachers. Hebert said there is "no magic number" of teacher absences that would trigger a district closure.
Many, with last year's unprecedented use of NTI still fresh in their minds, are worried students will have to return to virtual instruction once more.
How are other school districts operating?
School districts across Kentucky are making final decisions on COVID-19 policies for the new year, with some requiring masks after previously having them optional.
Bullitt County Schools is not changing its mitigation efforts from the fall, a spokeswoman said. Masks are required in Bullitt County.
Masks became optional in Oldham County Schools in November. The district has not announced a change in its policy.
Both districts also plan to return to classes on Tuesday.
What should parents know about omicron?
Dr. Kris Bryant, a pediatric infectious diseases physician with Norton Children’s Hospital, said experience with the delta variant of COVID-19 showed most children can attend school safely as long as precautions including wearing masks are followed.
The spread of the new, even more contagious omicron variant shows schools should not drop such precautions, she said Monday.
“Now, if kids go back and omicron is circulating and it’s twice as infectious and people don’t wear their masks, I’m worried that we’re going to have a lot more cases,” said Bryant, who also is affiliated with University of Louisville Health.
Relatively low vaccination rates also are concerning, with about 47% of all Kentucky children ages 12-17 having received a first dose of vaccine and only 16% of those ages 5-11 vaccinated, Bryant said. Vaccines are not yet authorized for children under 5.
For parents reluctant to get children vaccinated, Bryant had this advice: “If you have questions please talk to your child’s pediatrician and get your questions answered.”
Staff writer Sarah Ladd contributed to this report.
Reach Olivia Krauth at email@example.com and on Twitter at @oliviakrauth.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: JCPS classes restart in-person Tuesday: What parents need to know