Local educators hope to have a better idea next month what school could look like in the fall as everyone adjusts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Broad guidance was released last week on how schools can navigate the reopening process.
According to the Tennessee Department of Education website, guidance is an “evolving situation.” The first school reopening toolkit for local education agencies was released June 8. Toolkits added June 15 include information on nutrition, transportation, special populations and finance. More are anticipated in the coming days.
“The pandemic has elevated known gaps and we must accelerate a child-centered strategy,” Penny Schwinn, TDOE commissioner, said in the overview document. “During this crisis a number of challenges within our field have become apparent. In some cases, these are new challenges that we must face together. In others, they are challenges that have existed over decades and are now rapidly accelerating in greater public awareness and urgency.
“Frankly, these things are not new, but they have been brought to the forefront of the public consciousness and demand to be addressed in ways that may not have been so dire and so clear as we know them to be now,” she added.
The 44-page document outlines the possibility of having all students physically inside school buildings, all students virtually learning and a combination of both.
Michael Garren, Loudon County director of schools, believes the information was intentionally left broad.
“Of course, I don’t believe the state’s going to give us definitive direction on exactly what to do,” Garren said. “They’re just going to give us different options, which is what that guidance is, and different options that you could look at — on-site, virtual, a mix, staggered days, different things like that. They’re supposed to out with like 40 more documents over the couple of weeks with more detailed guidance on each aspect of how reopening should go. But everything that we’ve already been discussing in our leadership team was in that document. So the thing that stuck out to me in the document was it looks like they’re not planning on doing any waivers for school days, so they expect either on-site or virtual operating.”
Garren hopes to have a more definitive plan in place after July 4 and to survey parents and school staff.
A mixture of in-person and virtual lessons could prove difficult.
“That will be very challenging to do, but I feel like that’s probably what’s going to be best for all of our community because I know we’re going to have some community members that want their children back in school and being as normal as possible with the safety precautions in place that we’ll have,” Garren said. “Then we’ll also have community members that are probably still not as comfortable putting their kids back into the environment, into a school setting environment, so we want to make sure we provide them with a quality education as well and meet their needs while making them feel comfortable.”
The aim is to have school as normal as possible, he said.
“The state board of education is supposed to be meeting sometime this month to vote on what requirements are going to be for a virtual instructional setting and I want to see what they’re going to require before we put that information out there to make sure that that’s something we’re able to do and that we transmit that out appropriately out to parents,” he said. “Because if I tell you that, ‘Hey, you can come on-site or you can do virtual,’ you may decide that you want to do virtual. But then if I come back and tell you, ‘You’ve got to do this, this, this and this to do virtual,’ you may change your mind, so we want to have all the information we can so parents can make an informed decision.”
Lenoir City Schools is putting a focus on “learning is not a ‘place.’ Learning is what we ‘do’,” Jeanne Barker, Lenoir City director of schools, said.
“This is what we are communicating to our school family,” Barker said in an email correspondence. “So whether we learn at school or at home, the goal is the same. We all learn together.”
The city district will have a “comprehensive plan” covering health and safety concerns, continuous learning plans and additional support services for parents and community partners.
“We will finalize the plan by the first week in July,” Barker said. “Communication is an important part of all of this, so we have been working on a new website and communication tool for teachers, students and parents. The new website and tools will launch on July 1 and I plan to have the details ready to communicate after the Fourth of July holiday. Each school is working on the details of how the plan will be implemented at their locations. As you know, each school serves a different age group, so the details of the health/safety, academic and support services will be tailored to each school.”
Lenoir City was one of several districts to give initial feedback on the state’s guidance.
“We couldn’t wait for the state to release information, so we have been communicating with our teachers, surveying parents and talking with others across our state and nation as we work together to gather information,” Barker said. “We are designing a plan that will be best for our school community. ... This is certainly an important time for all of us.”
School resumes in August. As of now, Garren does not know if students will be required to wear face masks. Keeping student desks apart 6 feet is also something likely not possible.
“But what we will do — and all of those are recommendations — what we will do is however many kids we have in the classroom we’ll social distance them within the classroom as much as possible,” he said. “That may look different in different settings depending on how many kids we have in each classroom, but we’ll definitely follow the spirit of that guidance to do as much social distancing as possible. But in some our larger, specifically high school classrooms, that 6 foot is not going to be possible and be able to get the number of kids in there that we need to get in there.”