Home Work

School board on Zoom

Home Work

In its first virtual meeting, the school board supports a plan to provide educational materials to students stranded while classrooms are closed.

by jesse fox mayshark • march 27, 2020

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The knox County school board meets via zoom on thursday.

Teams of teachers across Knox County will spend the next week compiling work-at-home materials for students to use during the coronavirus-induced closure of public schools, now extended to at least April 24.

An obstacle for online instruction: Many students don't have computers at home.

In a meeting held Thursday via the Zoom video conferencing platform and broadcast on the school system’s website, Knox County school board members said they supported Superintendent Bob Thomas’ effort to find ways for students to stay academically active during the prolonged down time.

“Last week, we thought maybe we would be back in school initially,” said Thomas, noting schools were first closed just through April 3. “Obviously, that didn’t happen.”

None of the interim work provided will be required or graded, and it will consist primarily of review materials in the four primary academic areas: English, math, science and social studies. It will focus on reinforcing what students have already learned this year rather than trying to continue the regular curriculum.

“We understand that this does not replace regular instruction,” said Assistant Superintendent Jon Rysewyk, the school system’s chief academic officer. “The content that we would be using would be more review that would be appropriate for the grade level or for the subject that those students are enrolled in.”

After the meeting, school system Public Affairs Director Carly Harrington said in an email that the goal was to have resources ready by the end of next week.

The plan is part evolution and part reversal of the position the school system took last week, when administrators told parents all they could offer was general educational resources on the school system’s website. Teachers were told not to send even optional work home to students because of concerns about equity and access for students with learning disabilities or without home internet service.

That frustrated some parents and teachers, who said children would lose developmental ground if their education for the year just stopped. Some other school systems, like neighboring Anderson County, moved ahead with ambitious work-at-home plans, offering online materials and paper packets.

“One of the hardest things was that we were on spring break when other school systems were handing out packets and going online,” board member Patti Bounds said.

Thomas said administrators had hoped schools would be able to reopen April 6, which would have meant just two weeks of lost time. But as the pandemic spread, that came to seem unlikely, and Gov. Bill Lee this week urged Tennessee schools to stay closed through April 24.

The plan Rysewyk presented to the board calls for high school materials to be online-only, because the array of courses would be challenging to prepare packets for. K-8 materials will be provided both online and in paper packets for students who need them.

There is also a tentative plan to have select teachers provide grade-level lessons in each subject matter on the school system’s KCS TV website.

Guidance over the past week from both the federal and state departments of education said school systems could have flexibility in meeting the needs of special education students, some of whom typically receive levels of individual attention that would be hard to replicate online.

Board member Terry Hill said when it came to special education students, “I think we can demonstrate that we intend to make every accommodation that can possibly be made. Even if that means perhaps going into summer months to meet the needs of some of our most challenged students, then we need to be prepared to do that.”

(The school system has not discussed extending the school year for general education students. The state Legislature waived the required 180 days of instruction for the year.)

Equity concerns were still prominent for several board members. Evetty Satterfield, whose district includes some of the poorest communities in the county, said many students won’t be able to access the home materials.

“I want to make sure our teachers know that this is a resource, and full-out instruction shouldn’t be taking place,” she said. “I think we do need to make a clear decision of what is expected of educators.”

Rysewyk agreed and said teachers would not be teaching regular classes. They could potentially be available for online consultation with their students, although on a limited basis. He suggested having two or three designated time slots a week.

“We would want to put parameters around that for teachers because we understand teachers have families at home, too,” he said. “It wouldn't be a 24-7 expectation that they're there as kind of a one-on-one tutor.” 

But, Rysewyk added, “No plan that we’ve seen across the state is perfect. It's not going to answer all the questions when we talk about all the equity issues that are out there.”

He said the school system would work with community partners including Great Schools Partnership to locate resources and reach families who might have access issues, including trying to find laptops or tablets for those who lack them. 

Overall, the eight board members who logged into the video meeting supported the school system’s plan, although several had questions about how it would all work. Thomas and Rysewyk acknowledged many details still have to be worked out.

“Just be assured, we're looking for every way to make sure that we provide an equitable educational opportunity for all our students,” Thomas said, “and we're going to continue to do so.”

Board Vice Chair Virginia Babb asked that parents and students have some patience.

“We have a huge community and very different needs and abilities, and we're doing our best,” she said.