As Knox County Schools sorts out options for reopening this fall, a community task force says parents need to hear more clarity.
by jesse fox mayshark • june 30, 2020
task force member joan grim asks a question to assistant superintendent jon rysewyk at monday's meeting.
Toward the end of Monday night’s second and final meeting of the community task force charged with providing input on the reopening of Knox County Schools this fall, committee member Jonathan Fortner identified the greatest need for parents over the coming weeks.
One place social distancing won't work: school buses.
“Communication, communication, communication,” said Fortner, a Sequoyah Elementary School parent. “We’re 42 days out, and we’ve got to get communication in front of our families. They’re making life decisions right now, and they’re waiting on information from us.”
The families of Knox County’s 60,000 students will need to wait a few weeks longer for firm details beyond the school system’s stated goal to reopen in August. Although many questions were asked at Monday’s meeting — about technology, transportation, special education accommodations and what happens if a student tests positive for the novel coronavirus — it was clear the school system is still sorting out the answers.
“Our plan is to be back in school,” Superintendent Bob Thomas told the 10-member task force, made up of representatives from every school board district (plus chairman Jerry Askew of the Alliance for Better Nonprofits). “And we know that some parents are probably not going to send their child to school. So we will have an alternative for parents who do not wish to send their child to school.”
Such alternatives will require online learning via laptops or tablets provided by the school system. The school board gave approval last month to lease about 40,000 new Chromebook laptops for the coming year, which combined with existing machines will provide a device for every student.
Askew will present thoughts and feedback from the task force to the school board at its July 8 work session. Thomas then plans to present a full reopening plan at the board’s monthly meeting on July 15. That will be less than a month before the planned reopening of school on Aug. 10.
Committee members asked about busing for those who qualify for school-provided transportation. Russ Oaks, the school system’s chief operating officer, said there is no realistic way to provide social distancing on buses — spacing riders 6 feet apart would reduce the capacity of the larger vehicles from 80 students to 10.
“So what do we do?” Oaks asked. “I think we can run our buses and take some steps to mitigate the fact that we can’t socially distance like we would like to.”
He said buses would be thoroughly disinfected after morning and evening runs, require students and drivers to wear face masks while on board, and lower windows for better air circulation when the weather permits.
Committee member Joan Grim suggested the school system and Health Department develop a simple consistent message about health rules that can be put on posters and repeated across the community.
“Why couldn't Knox County have a standard protocol that's communicated throughout the whole system repeatedly to families and parents and teachers and say, OK, this has to be done every day,’” Grim said.
Several committee members also asked about school health staffing. Lisa Wagoner, the system’s health services supervisor, said the district has about 80 nurses. Some of those are specially assigned to particularly high-needs students; others serve one or multiple schools.
“We work very closely with the Health Department,” Wagoner said. She said if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, the school system will immediately contact the health department. People who test positive will need to be quarantined, as will those in close contact with them.
Askew said that highlighted the need for access to remote instruction.
“There has to be a seamless way that a person who is forced to stay home for two weeks is able to keep up on their academic work,” he said.
But that in turn raised questions about how much exactly will be demanded of teachers, who may have to juggle in-classroom and remote students simultaneously. Jon Rysewyk, assistant superintendent and chief academic officer, said a live/remote hybrid approach would be most difficult for educators.
“I think it's the (model) that probably presents the most challenges for our teaching staff, who already are pretty taxed to do what they need to do,” Rysewyk said.
Committee member Steve Hunley, a former school board member and the publisher of the Knoxville Focus, said the most important thing was for the school system to be prepared for another interruption.
“If we have what happened last spring, where students and teachers are told to stay home, they cannot come to school,” Hunley said, “it’s imperative that we have an alternative. Because our children cannot lose that kind of instruction.”