Board Meetings: Knox County School Board Adopts Plan for Schools

Amid a charged atmosphere, with protesters for each side of the re-opening issue standing outside and social distancing enforced inside, the school board met to discuss the superintendent’s plan for re-opening schools. I’ll confess to having skipped the first 32 minutes related to other issues, and suggest you go elsewhere to find how the board voted on the upgrade to the Gibbs High School football facility.

The introduction to the issue of the plan for reopening was introduced with the statement from the chair saying that the decision was made to not vote on the plan in order to allow the superintendent to change the plan should he so decide. Board members could force a vote by motion, if they so chose.

School board member Ms. Owen protested the fact that agenda items are controlled by the executive committee and not shaped by the board. The plan, for example, was not listed on the agenda until the day of the meeting. She made a motion that there be discussion after the presentation and that they be able to make changes, if needed. A second was made

Superintendent Thomas presented the plan, which you can view here. He said the plans allow students to return and makes provision for their safety. It also allows for learning from home for the families that choose to do so.

$800,000 has been spent on safety measures. They project $4 to $5 more in addition to the $3 million or so on digital support for learning from home. He thanked the people who have helped shape the plan. He thanked Dr. Buchanan and others at the Knox County Health Department for their help. He said the plan will not be perfect from the beginning and asked for grace as they make it better.

Points he emphasized:

  • Teachers will be provided an extra week before school starts for planning and deploying the Chromebooks. Starting date for students is now Monday, August 17. Five inclement weather days will be used for this purpose. He pointed out that having the technology, school can be conducted even if buildings have to be closed.
  • Families will have the option of having their children attend physical school or attending digitally. Families must stick with their choice for the semester and the decision must be made by July 22. An online form must be completed
  • If things worsen, everyone could be put on remote education. This could be system-wide or it could be on a school-to-school basis.
  • For those in person, the “look and feel” will be different. Temperatures will be taken, hand sanitizer and stepped up cleaning protocol and mask will be required of students and staff when physical distancing is not possible.
  • Not all courses will be offered.

He said he knows the decision will be a difficult one for many families. He directed families to the link above to get more detail to help with your decision. Employees are also given options if they feel they cannot work based on their health or family issues. They will grant leave without pay for those employees.

He reminded everyone that circumstances can change quickly. He noted that things don’t look good around the community in cases and hospitalizations. He said if the school gets started with teachers and deployed computers, but things get worse, they would be much more prepared than had been the case in the past. He said the year will not be easy, but it will be successful.

During the public forum Sandy Bush said she represents a group of parents of students with IEPs (special education students). She said that special education students got less communication than other parents in the spring after schools closed. She said they want the service hours required by law to be met.

Dever Shadick (sp?), father of five, one still in Knox County Schools, and one who is an incoming teacher. He is also a hospital physician and a medical director of three nursing homes. He said the disease is real and a cure or vaccine is likely months away. He said he lost a patient to COVID-19, yesterday. He wants his daughter to be in school. He said the plan is thoughtful and reflects great effort.

He said the missing piece he is concerned about the vague language regarding masks. He pointed out that about half the board members were not properly masked. He pointed out that teachers are going to be heavily exposed. He asked that masking be beefed up. Three children under ten have died in Tennessee. He fears more of that will happen if we open without adequate masking. He suggested N-95 masks for all teachers. He advocated for using the online option.

Lance McColb (sp) spoke next. He said schools were underfunded before the pandemic hit. He said Governor Lee and Mayor Jacobs caused much of the problem by opening so aggressively against the guidance of CDC. He said they need to fix it. He urged the board and Superintendent Thomas to demand the funds from them to fix it.

Tanya Coates, KCEA President, spoke next. Noting the plan took a lot of time, she asked, “Why can’t we wait?” She said teachers do not have needed resources. She said U.S. Education Commissioner needs to be “sent on vacation in November,” implying she is forcing the return to school. She pleaded for the school to keep the safety of teachers and students at the fore.

Board Member Owen, said that after hearing demands for safety and predictions that there will be death. She said no one person should have to take full responsibility for that kind of decision. She said the superintendent should not be held solely responsible. She said they should have all been involved as board members. Superintendent Thomas said he just wants flexibility if it is voted on.

In the discussion, the following points were made:

  • The reason the dates are set for making a decision is because of the work has to be done to build a digital schedule, hire additional employees, etc. Students moving here after the deadline can make their choice then.
  • Parents of students with AP class needs are concerned. Some classes may not be offered, though they will try to offer classes at the virtual level system-wide if necessary. It could also open up AP options for students who previously could not get them. Pellissippi may be offering advanced classes more so than they have before.
  • There will be some inconvenience with class changes as class needs are attempted be met.
  • CTE classes will be more limited virtually and will require being present (welding, for example), though some may be able to be offered virtually (business classes, for example).
  • It was questioned why students who chose virtual education would be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities. The answer was that wasn’t likely to be common and that some activities may allow for social distancing.
  • Regarding Kindergarten the young one’s special needs, the state required that kindergarten students are required to have four hours of programming per day and they are making plans to meet that.
  • Special education parents want to make sure their children are not left behind by missing therapies, etc.
  • Please be patient as principals work through the many issues.
  • Food programs will continue as they did in the spring if schools are closed or for students who choose virtual instructions.
  • Enforcement of mask requirements was raised. They hope to educate first and avoid punitive situations.
  • Relating to teacher evaluations, Dr. Thomas said he and others would like to have a year with no evaluations or assessments. Some board members expressed support.

In the end, the board voted unanimously to support the superintendent’s plan.