Open With Caution

Knox County Schools task force

Open With Caution

A Knox County Schools survey shows parents, students and teachers all want to get back to the classroom this fall — but carefully.

by jesse fox mayshark • June 25, 2020

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Knox County Schools research director steven rudder presents survey data  wednesday night.

A majority of Knox County parents, students and teachers who responded to an online survey want local schools to reopen this fall, with safety precautions in place. 

Among the concerns: internet access and students with disabilities.

That was the topline takeaway of data presented Wednesday evening to a community task force appointed by the Board of Education to provide feedback on fall plans. Superintendent Bob Thomas told the task force that he shared the same goal.

“All of our focus right now is reopening school in the fall,” Thomas said at the beginning of the meeting at the Sarah Simpson Professional Development and Technology Center in South Knoxville. “And we just want to make sure when we do that that we're considering the health and welfare of our students, our staff and the community.”

The survey, which the school system posted and promoted online and via emails to parents and staff, generated more than 30,000 responses — the vast majority of them from parents. (The results are available on the school system’s website.)

Of those respondents, 24,835 self-identified as parents, 2,006 as students, 4,022 as teachers, 313 as administrators, and 1,401 as other community members.

Steven Rudder, the school system’s director of research and evaluation, emphasized that the survey wasn’t scientific, since it was open to anyone and there were no controls for people potentially filling it out more than once. But he said the volume dwarfed the 6,000 or so responses the district usually gets to parent surveys.

“So people have opinions about this, and they care about it a lot,” Rudder said.

Knox County Schools closed on March 13 in the face of the rising coronavirus pandemic and ended up staying closed through the end of the school year. Because the district did not have universal access to take-home laptops and tablets for students — known in education jargon as 1:1 technology — it was not able to continue instruction and instead provided optional online review material.

The school board has since allocated funds, including an anticipated $7 million through the federal CARES Act, to have laptops for every student in the coming year. But Thomas emphasized that online learning is a last resort.

“We know the best way that learning takes place is with teachers and students in the classroom,” Thomas said. 

The survey showed that 54 percent of parents and 52 percent each of students and teachers want to resume full-time, in-school instruction in August. Another 31 percent of parents, 32 percent of students and 37 percent of teachers favor a hybrid approach, with instruction offered both in person and online. Only 15 percent of parents, 16 percent of students and 11 percent of teachers favored moving to online-only instruction this fall.

The softest support for returning to school came from administrators, with a plurality of 46 percent favoring it versus 42 percent who advocated for the hybrid model. Rudder said that based on discussion during a focus group with principals, that mostly reflects a desire for more information about how the logistics will work.

“It’s not that they don’t want to be back in the building,” he said. “There’s a lot of angst over not knowing what we’re going to do.”

For example, if the district decides to have every student’s temperature taken on the way into the building, how will that work during the busy morning crush of hundreds or thousands of students?

Those are the kinds of questions the task force is supposed to provide some guidance on. The 10-member group is made up of one community member appointed by each of the nine school board members, plus committee chair Jerry Askew, president of the Alliance for Better Nonprofits.

“The school board has not asked us to come up with a series of recommendations,” Askew told the committee members Wednesday. “They have asked us to give them our insights, our observations, whatever we can bring.”

The committee will meet again next Monday, June 29, and is supposed to make a presentation to the school board at its July 8 meeting.

Among the concerns committee members raised Wednesday were how teachers will be trained in online instruction, in case it is required; how students with disabilities will be accommodated both in school and online, if needed; and how internet access could be provided to students who don’t have it at home in case of another school closure.

On the latter point, Thomas said the school system is looking into deploying hotspots that students and parents could visit for connectivity.

Committee member Joan Grim, a former Knox County special education teacher who now teaches in the College of Education at the University of Tennessee, said students with disabilities need particular attention in any plan for the fall.

“I know Knox County has a significant number of students with disabilities who also have concomitant health impairments,” she said. “And so they are at risk, and their staff and teachers could be at risk, without some kind of pretty significant procedures in place.”

As far as conditions survey respondents want to see in place to feel comfortable returning to school, the second leading item across all the groups is, “A consensus among the medical community that it is safe to do so.”

The biggest vote-getter: “The number of new infections of COVID-19 in Knox County decreases.”