School districts and schools are intending for any massive statewide COVID-19 vaccination effort of teachers along with other school staff. Districts have been asked to submit a roster towards the Kentucky Department of Public Health after the month of employees to be vaccinated.

“We will have an easy after 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 rely on the quantity of doses of vaccine that we get in, and just how quickly we can have it to our employees.”

Under the state's vaccination plan, educators and school staff have been in the “Phase 2” group to be vaccinated from the coronavirus, after frontline healthcare workers, long-term care residents along with other certain critical or vulnerable populations.

The two COVID-19 vaccines, produced by Pzifer and Moderna, have been shown to become more than 90% effective at preventing people from developing symptoms of the coronavirus. It's 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 summary of all school-based employees, including teachers, substitutes, administrators, janitors and nutrition workers, who wish to be vaccinated throughout the “educator distribution period.” The vaccine will be open to staff at both private and public schools. The JCBE spent much of their meeting discussing the vaccination plan.

“We haven't been given specific information about what vaccine we will get, and whenever we can get it,” Pollio told the board. Later he added the “best-case scenario” could 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 likely to survey staff within the next 72 hours to find out how many staff want to go ahead and take vaccine, which won't be mandatory. Officials in the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) said Tuesday that as employers, schools will have to permit an exemption for workers with religious objections to vaccination, or disabilities.

Pollio said he encourages all staff to get vaccinated nonetheless.

It would be the quickest method to mitigation of that spread from the virus so that we can open our schools back up quickly,” he explained.

JCPS, the state's largest district, has been around remote learning since March.

To provide the vaccine to educators, JCPS staff are working with Louisville Metro Health and Wellness to organize a possible 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 amount of students permitted to return would depend on the number of teachers the district could vaccinate. A lot of students will have the choice to remain in remote instruction.

It's unlikely the town will get enough vaccines for those JCPS educators and school staff at once. Pollio said the district would divide staff into groups and repeat the vaccination cycle as often when needed until all school staff are vaccinated.

Under Gov. Andy Beshear's latest recommendation, schools must accommodate employees' requests to operate remotely if they have not been offered a vaccine and fall into the high-risk category for coronavirus. JCPS has 3,000 staff within the at-risk category, including nearly 2,000 teachers, according to Pollio.

Return to school plans

A go back 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 transfer to post-holiday spread, I don't see where we will be dropping right into a safe area [on] January 11,” Pollio said. “I do see our quickest path to going back to school is the vaccine.”

Pollio said schools have obtained “mixed messages” from federal authorities, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) towards the White House, about whether it's safe to open schools. But he said he will follow the most recent 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 will think about the community spread in Jefferson County under control at this time, with 60 cases per 100,000 for yesteryear several weeks, and a statewide positivity rate of 8.5%,” Pollio said.

Meanwhile, KDE officials said Beshear is mulling a professional order that can make areas of the “Healthy At School” guidelines mandatory starting on Jan. 4. Beshear already announced his action to take the guidelines mandatory Monday included in updated “recommendations.” But Monday's announcement did not have the force of law, based on KDE officials.

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Jason Glass said only a portion of the guidelines are expected being mandatory: those labeled “expectations” in the guidance document. The expectations are mainly 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 insufficient space to allow for the recommended 6 feet.

Portions from the guidelines called “best practices” would remain optional but encouraged.

Winter Sports

While the Kentucky Senior high school Athletic Association (KHSAA) board of control voted to allow winter sports practices now, Pollio said JCPS will not allow any skiing participation until January at the earliest.

His decision drew mixed reaction from school board members. Board member James Craig concerned about the chance that a winter sports season might not happen when the health situation doesn't improve.

“If there’s in whatever way to allow these kids to compete, I'd like to see them obtain that opportunity. We are too perhaps considering evaluating each individual sport… and making a surgical approach rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to all of our skiing to ascertain if there’s in whatever way that we could pursue them in January?” Craig asked.

Board member Joe Marshall was more reluctant to allow for winter sports.

No appear we all do, someone’s going to have to sacrifice something,” Marshall said. “And I believe the best decision isn't sacrificing lives with regard to, you realize, individual or team accolades.”

Pollio said staff would reevaluate in January, and said he was open to finding ways for some form of skiing to move forward.