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School systems surveying parents, working on August reopening plans

Rick Wagner • Jun 28, 2020 at 5:00 PM

As local school systems gather survey data from parents about going back to school, they also face a July deadline to submit a plan to offer “quality instruction” within the usual time requirement but under the unusual circumstance of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tennessee Board of Education last week passed an emergency measure, as reported by Chalkbeat, requiring school systems to have plans to offer 180 days of instruction. A plan to meet that requirement as well as safety and health issues must be submitted to the state by July 24.

WHAT DO THE SURVEYS SAY?

On Wednesday, Sullivan County released its online survey asking parents what schools their students would attend this fall, what grade level, if they had reliable internet at home and whether they would ride a school bus.

“We’ve been working on the reopening plan,” Sullivan County Director of Schools David Cox said Tuesday. “We’re working on the plan right now. We’ll be working with principals.”

The survey asked parents if they planned to send students back to campus or do home learning online.

The survey also asked parents if they preferred traditional, in-person learning, a hybrid of online and in-person learning, or online learning only, which was used in Tennessee school systems from mid-March through the end of the school year in May.

Last week Hawkins County school officials released a similar survey, focused on home internet and the three ways school could be offered later this year. Kingsport school officials sent out a survey Tuesday.

WHAT ARE “APPROPRIATE” HEALTH MEASURES?

“It’s very difficult to complete the survey intelligently because the district hasn’t told what property health measure they plan to put in place,” said a parent of three children in Kingsport City Schools. “We need to know what that looks like instead of just this vague question.” The survey asked about parental choice for in-person school if “appropriate safety measures” are in place.

Misty Belote said she and her husband work from home but that she is being treated for an illness and wants to know the health measures the school system will take. 

“The online option may be wise for our family and families like ours,” Belote said.

She said she would like to see more parental input on specifics instead of “a lot of silence and uncertainty.”

Board of Education President-elect Jim Welch said he’s not seen the final staff recommendations on coronavirus precautions, which could be similar among Sullivan County, Kingsport and Bristol, Tennessee, schools. However, he said he believes there would be accommodations for students, staff and faculty who are more susceptible to COVID-19. He also said that as schools reopen, he thinks the school board, which has been meeting virtually since the pandemic, should resume in-person meetings, too.

“It’s important at some point we get back in person,” Welch said. “I’m saying that as a 68-year-old man.” 

WHEN WILL PLANS BE ANNOUNCED?

Cox said the county Board of Education likely will address return-to-school issues at its July 9 meeting, which will be held at 6:30 p.m. after a 4 p.m. work session. Both meetings will be held virtually and streamed online with no members of the public in attendance. Cox said board actions possibly could include delaying the start of school from Aug. 3 for no more than two days if time is needed to do cleaning following high school graduations set for July 31 and Aug. 1. A final decision to go ahead with those ceremonies will be made July 20, he said.

Meanwhile, Kingsport’s school board will meet in regular session July 14. Welch said this is when the fall school plan is to be presented.

The system plans to have its high school graduation Friday, July 17, at J. Fred Johnson Stadium, although an inclement weather plan is in place.

Hawkins County already has had its graduations and will have its next school board meeting July 2. The school system plans to release its reopening plans by July 4, Director Matt Hixson has said.

WHAT COULD PLANS INCLUDE, COST?

As part of multiple toolkits the state Department of Education has released, guidance has included having plastic or plexiglass-type shields in place between student desks and making sure students sit at least six feet apart in the classroom. Other issues school systems need to work out include how meals would be served; whether face masks would be used by students, faculty and staff; and how students would be distanced on buses.

“We are really working hard on reopening plans,” Cox said of working relationships that include the Sullivan County Regional Health Department, a regional superintendents group and the Tennessee Department of Education. He said $2.1 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding will help the school pay for COVID-19 health measures.

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