Tennessee school districts to ‘choose their own adventure’ for upcoming year

COVID-19: Keeping Schools Safe

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — It’s no secret — COVID-19 has caused a sudden and significant shift in education in Tennessee.

As districts prepare to reopen, parents will notice a number of changes, including, but not limited to; blended learning, partial days, staggered schedules, or other mixed models, all in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.

Schwinn admitted the team effort she’s seen in the last few months may be this pandemic’s only silver lining,

“We’re showing what Tennesseans can do when we come together and that’s been something that’s been special to watch,” Schwinn said.

As summer break winds down, Schwinn gets busier and busier with counting, analyzing, and planning. Planning the start of a new school year is anything but easy amid a pandemic. ​

“It’s been a little bit of everything over the last few months,” Schwinn said.

According to Tennessee’s State Statute, a calendar school year in Tennessee is defined as 180 days. A school day is defined as 6 1/2 hours. This will not change, as of now. But how the statue is fulfilled will change greatly.

“We tried to outline what we thought were the 10 most likely scenarios the districts would be choosing,” Schwinn said.

These scenarios include a number of categories and options, sorted out in a chart, listed with both pros and cons.

Category 1: All students are physically in schools

Options include:

  • Traditional return
  • Staggered return
  • Staggered schedules
  • School year round

Category 2: All students participate in virtual and distance learning

Options include:

  • Full-time distance education
  • Self paced or Semi independent

Category 3: Some students physically in schools others are online

Options include:

  • Split days
  • Alternating days
  • Physical attendance based on need

Category 4: Intermittent physical and virtual learning

Options include:

  • Family choice
  • Emergency response situations only

“All of our districts are completely different,” Schwinn said. “If you look at Shelby County or Metro Nashville or some of the other areas that have higher cases of virus spread, they’re going to have to take a very different approach compared to our rural counties that frankly only have a handful of cases.​”

Schwinn said districts will inevitability be choosing their “own adventure,” so to speak, for the upcoming school year. District plans must be submitted by July 24 for approval.

“All of that is going to take a lot of creativity,” Schwinn said. “Staff and students have to stay very healthy, and we have to be creative about finding instructional solutions that are very different from what we’ve done before​​.

“We have to stay optimistic and we have to keep a sense of possibility that we will be OK in the end we just have to take it day by day.” ​

In addition, the school board hopes districts consider the operational needs of schools based on a number of factors which may likely include:

  • Procurement of disinfecting and personal hygiene supplies
  • Classroom reconfiguration to maximize the ability of students and staff to socially distance from one another
  • Cohorting consistent small groups of students for recreation and eating
  • Recess participation and logistics
  • Elimination of assembly and mass gatherings
  • Procurement and distribution of cloth masks for students and staff
  • Development of policies to assure cloth face covering are worn by staff as well as students over the age of 2 who do not have physical or mental health conditions that preclude the use of a mask
  • Procurement of surgical masks, gowns, gloves and face shield for nursing staff who may be charged with the assessment of suspect cases
  • Procurement of signage to communicate policies and procedures to staff, students and families

Implementation of daily symptom checking of students and staff, to include noncontact temperatures upon arrival when feasible

  • Planning for one-way traffic within buildings, as possible
  • Need for additional janitorial service to perform regular and frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces in restrooms, hallways and classrooms
  • Recruitment of new educators and staff to replace those expected to retire or otherwise not return for the 2020-21 academic year
  • Strategies to address increased staff absenteeism, increased numbers of retirees and others who will not return to school for the 2020-21 academic year, decreased availability of substitute teachers, and decreased availability of bus drivers
  • Bus ridership for costing out additional or multi-trip routes, if needed
  • Promote walking and biking to school when it exists as an alternative to bus transportation
  • Parent drop-off and walker populations for traffic control and planning
  • Minimize additional community entry into the school and exposure to students, including parent drop-off (without building entry) and consideration of staggering drop-off times
  • School meal participation and logistics to include the elimination of buffets and promotion of in-class eating to minimize mixing between classes
  • Number of students and staff with health considerations
  • Isolated illness spaces and protocols for immediate removal of symptomatic individuals
  • Coordination with local health departments
  • Need for additional nursing or mental health and counseling supports
  • Need for additional IT support and purchasing (devices, phones, hot spots, etc.)
  • Need for fielding additional calls into the front office

Schwinn reminds all parents to stay patient, be flexible and know information will likely change.

“Know the people who are working through these decisions are parents too,” she said. “I’m a parent too, and we want to make sure your kids are safe and they’re getting a good education, but it’s also important to use your voice and make sure you’re using your voice … participating in the conversation in your districts because they need to know what parents want.​”

If you would like to read the Tennessee Board of Educations entire overview guide, click here.

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