With about one quarter of families choosing online instead of in-person instruction to start the school year, Blount County Schools plans to hire 14 teachers to meet the demand.
The Board of Education on Thursday, July 30, voted unanimously to spend $891,500 to hire 10 elementary and four middle school teachers, plus $137,300 for four more custodians to help with increased cleaning during the pandemic.
All would be one-year positions with the money coming from the BCS fund balance, previously undesignated money, however Director Rob Britt told the board a new federal coronavirus relief bill could provide funding to cover the cost.
The Blount County Commission is expected to hold a called meeting next week to consider the spending the board approved, according to Britt. Otherwise the schools would have to wait until after the commission’s scheduled meeting in late August to hire the staff.
Board members asked whether teachers who took a leave or sabbatical this school year could be hired for the virtual teaching positions, but school officials said currently they require staff to report to campus when teaching virtual classes.
To balance the 2020-21 budget the school board cut 16 teaching positions, 14 teaching assistants and three Central Office positions.
Assistant Director David Murrell explained in an interview before the board meeting that the district must meet the same state-mandated student-teacher ratios for virtual learning as it does for classes at school.
Britt commended staff members during his remarks to the board for their efforts in reopening schools with new health and safety protocols and an attitude of “we are going to move forward in faith and not fear.”
When the president of the Blount County Education Association spoke later she told the board teachers were happy to be back with students and appreciated the staggered start this week that kept groups small, but they have serious concerns.
“I still have a lot of teachers very, very worried about keeping their students safe,” Rebecca Dickinson said, noting the recent rise in COVID-19 cases locally.
She referred to the distancing between people in the board’s meeting room and said, “If you picture 30 students in a regular classroom you can’t socially distance, and that’s very scary. It doesn’t feel like we can keep them safe.”
Dickinson echoed comments by board member Jim Compton asking whether BCS could extend past Aug. 5 the staggered attendance that splits students into smaller groups, at least as long as cases continue to rise in the county.
While Britt had said the smaller groups made an easier start to the school year, he noted that continuing that would require teachers to plan instruction for students in and out of the classroom each day, because of state attendance rules. “That’s a big ask for most of our teachers to be able to accommodate that,” he said.
Board Chair Debbie Sudhoff also noted the possible hardship for families arranging child care when students are out of school, including teachers whose own children may be out of class while the teacher is in school.
However, Britt noted that the schools will adapt plans based on factors including case numbers.
Board member Jim Compton predicted a drastic rise in cases and cited the need to protect students and staff. “If it costs every dollar we’ve got in fund balance we’ve got to use it to keep those people safe,” he said.
Bus driver masks
In other action Thursday, the board approved changes to school bus contracts that provide a $75 stipend per route for cleaning supplies and require owners to sanitize the vehicles twice a day.
The addendum to school bus contracts also requires drivers to wear face coverings over their nose and mouth while students board and exit, but they may lower the coverings while driving.
The meeting was the last for Compton and board member Bill Padgett, who chose not to run for reelection this year. Britt lauded both of them for more than 30 years of service as educators and two terms on the board.
In presenting a plaque to each he elbow-bumped them instead of shaking hands during the meeting where temperatures were checked on arrival, seats were distanced and participants wore masks.
“I just want to thank everybody and wish Blount County Schools the best in the future, and I hope some day we’ll be fully funded,” Padgett said.
Board member Robbie Kirkland, District 4, is running unopposed in next week’s election. Write-in candidates are running in the other districts.