County schools OK fall plan

Loudon Elementary School teacher Robert Sanders gets his room ready for students.

Loudon County Board of Education officially took steps toward starting the upcoming school year on time.

Board members Thursday approved 6-1 a reopening plan, with Scott Newman and Craig Simon motioning and seconding, respectively. Board member Gary Ubben was the lone opposition. Board members Brian Brown, Zack Cusick and Bobby Johnson Jr. were absent.

The expansive plan covers academics, health and hygiene, facilities and routine, bus transportation, cafeteria procedures, school clinics, campus visitors, student supports, extended learning programs and COVID-19. A list of procedures can be found at www.loudoncounty.org.

Discussions started in March, but Director of Schools Michael Garren said talks continued when the state began releasing material in the last month. A community survey distributed to families June 15 garnered 2,200 responses. Garren found the response rate impressive considering there are 4,800 students in the system.

“For instance, the additional hand sanitizer being available and the additional cleaning in the high-contact areas were the two largest by far that parents and families wanted to see,” Garren said. “We feel like we went above and beyond to cover those two areas because that was the most important to them.”

Garren said changes are possible if the state gives different guidance.

“If we feel like there’s something we need to add or something that’s just not workable, because it’s a plan, so some things may not work out,” he said. “Some things we may see there’s a better way to do it than we had planned. We’ll make adjustments and present those to the board as needed and move forward.”

Plans include having additional hand sanitation stations throughout schools and at entry points, increased cleaning in high-contact areas and temperature checks daily for students and teachers. Hopes are for Loudon County Health Department to also help with contact tracing if needed.

Students or staff with COVID-19 will not be allowed to return for at least 10 calendar days from the beginning of symptoms and should be without a fever or respiratory symptoms for 72 hours. Remote instruction will be available for those out sick.

Parents are also asked to check temperatures before students get on the bus or head to school.

“We’re using the disinfectant electrostatic sprayers on the buses as well for the disinfection,” Garren said. “We’re lowering the windows to get airflow, increased airflow. We’ll have hand sanitizer available on the buses. We’ll have boxes of masks available on the buses if students want to use those. ...

“The parent’s going to have to partner with us to make sure that they’re checking the temperature before they put the student on the bus,” he added.

Garren encourages parents to take children to school when possible.

“We’ve been working for months with our department of health, FEMA and TEMA collecting different supplies to help us get ready to go back — sanitizers, wipes, face masks,” Matthew Tinker, county high school supervisor and career and technical education director, said.

School officials have been locating materials, such as hand sanitizer, that could be difficult to find in the fall, Garren said.

The plan is to start Aug. 7. Families will have the option to bring children to school or take part in learning through a virtual service. The virtual school registration deadline is Friday and can be found on the school district website.

“What we think is best is for kids to come back and be in school and learn traditionally because that way we can meet their social and emotional needs,” Garren said. “We can give them immediate attention to areas where they’re deficit in skills, things of that nature. But for those parents that have kids they don’t feel comfortable sending back for underlying health reasons or things like that, then I think the virtual is a good option for those parents.”

With virtual learning, Garren asks for strong parent involvement since students have to log 6 1/2 hours of learning each day.

“The teacher will be checking in with them but the teacher’s not going to be monitoring them all day,” he said. “That’s going to take an adult in the home to be making sure that process is taking place and that they’re completing their assignments and getting those turned in.”

The BOE will hold a workshop, followed by a regular meeting, at 6 p.m. July 23 at the Loudon County Courthouse Annex to discuss a continuous learning plan.

Registration for new students is Friday.

Masks an issue

While masks are encouraged, they are not required. Garren said 6-8 percent of responses from the survey felt masks were needed. That, along with their own concerns, is why school officials decided on personal choice.

Garren worried students would wear the masks improperly.

“Imagine a first-grader at 6:30 in the morning getting on the bus and then getting off the bus at 4 in the afternoon,” he said. “Can they go 9 1/2-10 hours without ever touching their nose, their face, their mask or moving it down? ... I think masks are important as well, but our main concern was if they’re not going to properly wear them are we creating more of a issue because then the teachers and the principals are going to be dealing with whether they’re wearing or not wearing it or flipping it or doing things like that.”

North Middle School teacher Katie Bellnier Thomas asked for the BOE to make masks mandatory. She referenced Gov. Bill Lee asking Tennesseans to embrace the habit of wearing a mask.

“Education Commissioner (Penny) Schwinn later said that in reopening, Tennessee schools will put safety at high quality education as a priority,” she said. “I ask you how is safety a priority when I’m asked to work in conditions where socially distancing is impossible but masks are not required? How is high quality education a priority when the professional teacher necessary to provide that education will be out sick or worse and there’s no one standing there to replace me?”

Loudon County resident Brian Kelch favored personal choice.

“We talk about how our country is set up and we have a freedom of choice, I should have freedom of choice if I wear a mask,” Kelch said. “Teachers should have freedom of choice if she wants to wear a mask. If she wants to wear it, that’s fine with me, but my 12-year-old back here is shaking his head he doesn’t want to wear a mask and I don’t feel that he needs it.”

Ubben, the lone BOE member to vote against the plan, said the board was in a “real dilemma” and there was “no good answer” to what was being considered.

“We’re dealing with a situation in schools where we always have had a tremendous amount of contact with each other, that’s just the nature of the schools,” Ubben said. “The way we’ve designed our buildings, the way we set up classrooms. It’s not very convenient for the pandemic that’s going on right now. I wish I could agree with what many of you are saying that let’s just make masks optional, but we’re dealing with lives. We’re not dealing with just the quality of education.”

Ubben wondered if school would be completed.

“I think no matter what we do, we run a very high chance of not making it through this school year,” he said. “I would see us having to shut down again during the school year should the infection rate begin to move our direction. If you’re in California or Arizona or Texas or Florida right now, you’re not going to make it through the school year I don’t believe, and I think we run a high risk if we don’t take every precaution we can of having the same thing happen to us.”