The Blount County Board of Education unanimously adopted a plan Tuesday for starting classes July 29 and will attempt to balance health and safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic with what’s “practical and feasible” for the district’s 21 schools.
“This plan is fluid, and it will be revised,” Director Rob Britt told the school board as he began to outline the plan being sent to families today noting that information on the pandemic changes daily.
Like Maryville and Alcoa, Blount County Schools will offer parents the option of traditional or virtual instruction, and based on early survey results, Britt expects about 85% of families will send their kids to school.
Families will be asked to submit their final choice through a form by July 17, and the district is working to provide internet access to families that need it.
The district will permit an as-yet-undefined window of opportunity for changes, but then students will be locked in to their choice for the remainder of the nine-week grading period.
Those choosing virtual instruction will face requirements not in place when the schools offered learning opportunities online for the final nine weeks of the past school year, when the buildings were closed under the governor’s recommendations to reduce the spread of the disease.
“There really won’t be anything optional about it,” Britt told the board. “It will just be going to school online.”
Easing bus load
The first challenge is bringing students to the schools in a district where, according to the BCS website, nearly 8,000 students ride a school bus, carrying an average of 55 students at a time.
To reduce the number of riders, Blount County is encouraging parents to drop off and pick up students when possible, and family members will be encouraged to sit together on the bus.
While the plans says, “drivers will assign one student per seat” where feasible, Britt acknowledged that it won’t be possible to follow all the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“On the vast majority of our buses, there’s no way, the number of students that ride them, to fully implement the CDC’s recommendation of one child per seat with an empty seat between each child,” he said later in response to a comment from the public. “We will try to do the best we can.”
On-campus students, staff and visitors all will have temperature checks daily. Schools still are working on exactly how the temperature checks will be conducted, but the district has received 265 “no-touch” thermometers.
For at least the first nine weeks, licensed practical nurses will be on a full-time schedule at the schools.
Visitors will be limited.
Board member Fred Goins, a former principal, asked for a plan to allow parents to accompany children to their kindergarten classroom door.
As he spoke, board Chair Debbie Sudhoff shook her head. As a parent, she said, she understands that moment of separation, “but I also would prefer my child not to be exposed to other people’s parents dropping their kid off as well. I would prefer us have a teacher get them out of a car, if we need to do that.”
Said Goins: “I’d like to find a way to make it warm and comfortable for the parents, if we can.”
“Face coverings are recommended but not mandatory,” the plan states, but school nutrition staff will wear personal protective equipment.
In a discussion about how schools will handle delivering meals when students may be eating in alternate locations, Britt told the board, “I could be asking for bus monitors, lunch monitors, you name it, temperature checkers, nurses. We don’t have the resource we need to do everything that we need to do by the letter of everything that CDC says. That’s why they call it guidance,” not a mandate.
“We’re trying to follow that to the best we can with the people that we have, with the resources that we have,” he said.
The reopening plan includes enhanced cleaning, and Britt said students will be separated as much as possible within classrooms. Recess and extracurricular activities will be held, and the extended school Friends program will operate at 13 elementary schools.
Britt told the board that schools will suspend all attendance incentives this school year. “We want to encourage students to remain home if they are sick,” he said.
The schools will need to be prepared to transition to other models, such as alternate day schedules or distance learning for all students within one or more schools for a time if outbreaks occur.
“That could happen several times this year,” Britt said, adding that one school or the entire system may have to close. “If the Health Department sees a real spike in our population, they may ask us to close for a period of time.”