Knox County Schools say they’re not equipped to provide equitable education while classrooms are closed. Some parents and teachers want to know why not.
by jesse fox mayshark • March 22, 2020
The marquee at fulton high school on sunday afternoon.
On the calendar originally set by Knox County Schools, now a relic from a more predictable time, students would be returning to public schools across the county on Monday after a relaxing spring break.
Access to technology varies from school to school across the county.
But in the rapidly evolving reality of coronavirus containment, nobody’s going anywhere. Schools are officially closed at least through April 3, and many people expect the closure to run longer if not all the way to the end of the school year.
That has led parents and teachers across the system to wonder what the school system can do to keep up some level of instruction during the prolonged closure. To their consternation, the answer so far has been: Not much.
“It’s frustrating for me, it’s frustrating for our staff, and I know it’s frustrating for the (school) board as well,” Superintendent Bob Thomas said in an interview this weekend. “I do understand teachers being upset and parents being upset.”
During an interview conducted over the Zoom app that also included Jon Rysewyk, the school system’s chief academic officer, Thomas said that the school system is simply not equipped to provide education remotely to all of its approximately 60,000 students.
“We have to provide equitable access for all of our students,” Thomas said. He said that with online learning or other remote approaches, it would be difficult to meet the needs of the 14 percent of Knox County students with educational disabilities and the 28 percent who are classified as “economically disadvantaged,” many of whom may not even have internet access.
Thomas said the county Law Department had advised the school system that it would be in violation of federal special education law if it couldn’t guarantee access for disabled students.
In an email sent to Knox County parents on Friday, Thomas wrote (emphasis included in the original), “Because we don’t have the capabilities to offer online instruction for all students, we must follow federal guidelines concerning distance-learning initiatives. Therefore, we cannot require assignments of students during this closure because not all students have equal access, and some may require additional services that cannot be offered at home.”
In a separate email to staff on Friday, Thomas urged teachers not to try to provide tailored instruction or materials for their classes: “To ensure that we are providing equitable educational resources for all students, we are asking teachers to refrain from offering online teaching opportunities or sharing any materials with students.”
The school system has provided a set of links to online educational resources for each grade level. They are fairly broadly tailored, not specific to any one classroom or curriculum.
Parents raising concerns online over the weekend referenced a widely-shared Google document reporting efforts by school systems across the country, including some in Tennessee, to do distance learning both online and via handouts provided for pickup at schools.
For example, neighboring Anderson County has had its teachers working for the past week to prepare and distribute packets for home learning. The school system has launched a hashtag — #ACSathome — and encouraged parents to post photos of students doing their schoolwork.
School board Chair Susan Horn said she had seen that list, too, and intends to talk to Thomas and other administrators about what options Knox County might have if the closure is extended.
“I understand the challenges and the decision-making process they’re going through,” Horn said, “but for the people I represent, I think I’m going to hear a lot more questions.”
Horn’s 5th District includes Farragut, which has some of the highest-performing schools in the county academically, and where many families are fully equipped for online learning. She noted that, for example, students in Advanced Placement courses will still need help preparing for exams that are still scheduled to take place — online — in May.
“They need to be able to touch base with their teachers, in my opinion,” Horn said.
Thomas said the situation highlights ongoing disparities across the county, which the school board has made one of its top priorities in recent years. Rysewyk noted there have been efforts to provide universal access to technology, but there has never been the funding for it. The result is that some schools have one-to-one ratios of laptops or tablets for students, funded through grants or by school foundations or other means, while others do not.
“Not to make everything totally about resources, but we know that Knox County Schools has been trying to make movement toward building that bank of technology,” Rysewyk said. “Our budget’s not allowed us to be able to do some of those kinds of things.”
He said most other school systems that are doing extensive distance learning during coronavirus closures are places that have already made that investment.
"This is the culture of how we have treated public education in Tennessee and Knox County, and so you’re seeing it first-hand.” – Evetty Satterfield, Knox County school board member
While it is unclear how long Knox County schools will be closed, signs aren’t promising for a quick return after April 3. The University of Tennessee has moved all of its classes online for the rest of the spring semester and has canceled its normal graduation ceremonies.
With Gov. Bill Lee’s blessing, the state Legislature last week passed bills waiving testing and attendance requirements for the year, meaning that legally public schools do not need to return to session at all if coronavirus concerns linger.
School board member Evetty Satterfield, whose urban district includes many low-income families, said the equity problem in distance education is real. She said she supported Thomas’ approach to not allowing piecemeal efforts that could further disadvantage some students. She said the real problem, which predated the pandemic, is lack of resources across the school system.
“This is the culture of how we have treated public education in Tennessee and Knox County,” Satterfield said, “and so you’re seeing it first-hand.”
The last major push for technology funding in Knox County Schools came under former Superintendent Jim McIntyre, who in 2012 proposed a tax increase to fund $35 million in new school programs including universal access to laptops or tablets. The effort failed.
“McIntyre was right, we do need it,” Satterfield said. She said she hopes the school system and County Commission talk seriously about funding one-to-one technology across the county.
On Saturday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued guidance saying school systems can offer distance learning without violating federal special education law.
The memo said, “To be clear: ensuring compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act should not prevent any school from offering educational programs through distance instruction.”
Horn said she hopes accommodations can be found to allow some kind of work by teachers and students, even if it’s all voluntary.
“I will be asking that question, what can we do,” Horn said. “Because we have a lot of kiddos that need to be taking advantage of that time and not wasting these next few weeks.”