More East Tennessee schools go virtual ahead of winter break

Education

MORRISTOWN, Tenn. (WATE) — Cocke County Schools was the latest district to go virtual ahead of winter break.

According to a Facebook post, the district already planned for students to learn remotely on Friday, but Tuesday afternoon, leaders added Thursday to the schedule.

Many schools districts are going virtual ahead of winter break for a few different reasons relating to COVID-19, but the biggest one being lack of staff due to quarantine.

Matt Hixson, Director of Schools in Hawkins County, said his district started off the school year great, in terms of not having to go virtual for the entire district.

However, after Thanksgiving, the number of cases and quarantines in the county and in the school district started to climb fast.

“Even though our teachers have the ability when quarantined to teach from home and flip their classroom and teach back virtually to their class full of students, we still have to have adults in the classroom to facilitate those classrooms, and we were quickly running out of those available adults,” Hixson said.

Hixson said it wasn’t an easy decision, but it was necessary.

All students were set up with devices so they can go virtual, and several businesses and churches in the community offer free WiFi in case any students have issues getting online or sending in assignments.

Hixson said they also extended WiFi capabilities at school buildings into the parking lots.

For those who truly have no access, Hixson said they can print out their work for the three days.

The Hawkins County School district decided to start the first week of the new semester virtually.

Hixson said based on the increase of cases they saw after Thanksgiving break, they figured the situation will look very similar after winter break.

However, the district knows it would be difficult for some students to learn from home for more than the three days this week, so the district will go into what it calls the ‘yellow phase’ for the first week back to school in January.

“We are bringing back a small group of students that need remedial instruction, our special needs students, and any students that may have fallen behind in the first term,” Hixson said.

Hixson said they are limiting capacity in the schools to 25%, which also gives room to students who can’t stay at home due to lack of supervision.

He said hopefully, students will be able to return to normal schooling on Jan. 11, however, it depends on the COVID-19 situation.

“Stay safe, stay healthy, make good decisions, as far as deciding to get together or do things that may put them at risk,” Hixson said.

Hamblen County Schools

Hamblen County high school and middle school students can learn virtually Wednesday through Tuesday if they choose, according to Hamblen County Schools Superintendent Jeff Perry.

“We’ve kind of come up with this hybrid model also, of the optional virtual,” Perry said.

Perry said the district is encouraging students to learn virtually, because it was starting to get hard to fill positions.

Perry himself has even had to step into other positions, such as a cafeteria worker and custodian, to fill temporary vacancies COVID-19 created.

He said some students will choose to learn virtually this week, which will help relieve some of that burden to find substitutes.

“It gives us the ability to send a couple of kids home that are able to function well and affectively at the home, and then that reduces the need to have a bunch of staff members, and it also reduces the number of subs needed to cover classes,” Perry said.

Perry said the schools will remain fully open, food will be served and buses will run all their routes Wednesday through Friday, and Monday and Tuesday.

He said the district can’t go full virtual because elementary school students still don’t have devices to do so.

Perry said those should be coming in within the next few weeks.

However, on Monday and Tuesday, elementary school students could work from home via printed packets.

Perry said the district decided to make going virtual optional because he knows some students don’t learn well without hands on instruction.

On top of that, he said students are safer at school.

“If we don’t have school, then parents are going to have to make a number of decisions. And normally, what they do is put several kids together in one place that’s unstructured sometimes, they’re not wearing masks, they’re not hand washing that would go on all the time,” Perry said.

Both Perry and Hixson were very grateful to their teachers for dealing with all the changes through the pandemic.

Hixson said everyone deserves to relax over the break, but safely so students can go back in person.

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