Whether to require face coverings in the classroom was debated, and defeated, Thursday by Loudon County Board of Education.

The decision comes only two weeks after the BOE approved a school reopening school plan and days after district officials agreed to stagger the return of students Aug. 7, 10 and 11.

Board members Kim Bridges and Gary Ubben motioned and seconded, respectively, to require that high school students and teachers wear masks inside buildings when social distancing was not possible. The vote failed 6-3, with board members Philip Moffett, Kenny Ridings, Brian Brown, Zack Cusick, Craig Simon and Scott Newman opposing. Board member Bobby Johnson Jr. was absent.

Before the vote, Ubben and board member Will Jenkins motioned and seconded, respectively, to amend Bridges’ motion to require all students and teachers wear face coverings. That vote failed 5-4, with Moffett, Bridges, Ridings, Cusick and Newman opposing.

Bridges said she spoke with a local pediatrician who recommended high school students and teachers wear face coverings. She also said received input from “a lot” of teachers and others in the community. As a teacher at Roane County Schools, she said said understood their concerns.

“My goal as a school board member is to represent the people who put me here,” Bridges said. “So when you bring a concern I’m going to bring it to the board for discussion, and how they vote is their choice, I can’t direct that. When teachers speak, they need someone that will listen and that’s what we’re here for is to listen, because we do represent students, by all means, and parents, but we also represent teachers. Sometimes they get lost in that shuffle, and so that was what made me bring it up is because I don’t teach high school but teachers do that are out there every day and they are concerned.”

Newman said he favored parental choice regarding face coverings.

“I think we need to let our parents make that decision,” he said. “I think they’ve done an excellent job of coming up with the options, and it’s for each parent. I’ve had a lot of parents come to me and say, ‘I’m so glad you didn’t mandate the masks because my kid couldn’t do it.’ On the other spectrum I’ve had some say — not really had any parents, I’ve had a couple teachers talk to me about wearing a mask. ... I thought that Mike (Garren, director of schools), he’s really been planning this for months, and with uncertain times it sucks. I mean it’s just one of those things that who knows what’s going to go on. I think with everything coming at us and what you believe and can’t believe, everything that he’s done is the best we can do.”

Newman encouraged those who wanted to wear masks to do so.

“You got to protect yourself and do what’s good for you,” he said. “I don’t know, I think people ought to have choices.”

According to the reopening plan, face coverings are recommended but not required.

“I think the masks topic is one that is always going to be a hot topic and that’s why I deferred to the board on that,” Garren said. “That’s not my decision, that’s a board decision, and if the board wanted to require a mask we would certainly move forward with that. They decided to stay with recommending masks and we could move forward with that. Whatever the board wants to do relative to that decision we will move forward with and I’m fine with whatever direction the board decides to go.”

Before a vote on masks, Jenkins and Bridges motioned and seconded, respectively, to delay in-person school for nine weeks and move to remote learning for that period before reevaluating the situation. Jenkins eventually withdrew his motion.

Virtual, continuous learningBoard members approved funding for academic program Florida Virtual School and teacher stipends to monitor students taking class virtually this year.

The stipends would cost $488,200, Chad Presley, county schools budget director, said. The county would take $318,400 from General Purpose School Fund 141 and $169,800 from Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief federal funding.

“We pulled the money out of the ESSER grant to purchase the program and then we devoted funds in the ESSER grant toward the stipends and then what we didn’t have left to finish covering it we pulled out of fund balance,” Garren said. “So we started with the grant and then we ran out of money in the grant we moved to fund balance.”

Florida Virtual School will provide the learning content while local teachers will monitor students. Teachers will offer learning support during scheduled office hours.

School representatives initially estimated about 300 students would participate in the service, but as of Thursday more than 800 were enrolled. The previous estimated cost was $60,000, Garren said.

“I was a little surprised because what we did was the community survey that we did with the 2,200 responses, we took the amount from that that people indicated virtual would be their option and then added 50 percent to it as a number to shoot for,” Garren said. “So when we more than doubled that I was a little surprised. I’m not necessarily surprised, but based on the survey numbers that we had before it was much greater than what we thought it would be. Though compared to the surrounding districts, it’s a little bit less than what they’re seeing so I’m pleased with that because it makes me feel like that our parents are more comfortable sending their kids back into our buildings.”

Garren hopes stipends will help teachers.

Students involved in online learning will be required to spend seven hours daily for five days a week. Teachers will conduct daily check-ins for attendance, progress monitoring, instructional support and feedback.

“Our district goes seven hours a day in order to stockpile inclement weather days,” Garren said.

A continuous learning plan was also passed. Garren said the plan was submitted to the state Friday and approved Monday.

If COVID interrupts school, remote learning will begin within three days for students impacted. According to the plan, for the first three days teachers have created “skill-building and spiral review activities” that can be obtained either electronically or in physical copies from the school. All students will have access to either a laptop or iPad.

Students and teachers will focus on learning how to hold class remotely if needed in the future.

“Classroom teachers will continue synchronous instruction remotely by streaming instruction via Microsoft Teams or Zoom, providing resources and instructional materials, and checking in with students daily for attendance and support,” according to the plan. “Students without internet can still access the same high-quality instruction and materials asynchronously with videos/ebooks/instructional materials accessed via flash drive.

“... To facilitate the start of 2020, the district purchased additional student laptops in April,” the plan added. “With CARES Act funds, LCBOE has purchased more than 500 iPads for K-1, purchased virtual school licenses from Florida Virtual School, purchased Zoom Pro accounts for teachers, provided stipends for teachers for professional development and to be the teacher of record for virtual school, bought laptop cases, at-home internet filtering and flash drives for each student.”

Bridges likes the plan.

“I think that there’s lots of thought to go into that plan to show that if we go out of school, and we’re out for three days, then remote learning will take place,” Bridges said. “So that kids there won’t be a moment of being caught off guard like there was in the spring because no one saw that coming and then all of a sudden we were trying to figure it out. So that’s over. This has set it up so that, ‘Hey listen, you go out of school, in three days this is going to take place.’ I think it’s important that kids have that moment to learn how to use that Zoom and how to use the meets and by getting in school they’ll learn so should it happen then there won’t be that moment of what do we do, because now teachers have had the professional development to get to that point where they feel very comfortable in using it.”