'The Options Are Terrible'
Whether they decided to keep their children home or send them back to school, Knox County parents are unhappy with the choices presented.
by jesse fox mayshark • July 27, 2020
As the deadline approached last Wednesday to register for a “Virtual Learning Program” this fall or attend school in person, the families of 60,000 public school students across Knox County struggled to balance competing concerns.
Families weigh concerns about COVID-19 against children's academic and social needs.
Keeping students at home meant committing to at least four months of online-only learning, with many details still lacking. Which courses would be available? How well would both students and teachers adjust to remote instruction? How much time would parents need to devote to keeping their children on task and on track? How would the ongoing lack of social interaction affect children’s emotional development?
Sending them to school meant trusting in the health and safety practices of staff and students to mitigate the potential spread of the novel coronavirus, which students could easily bring home to parents and other family members. It also meant committing to an academic environment that will be much different from the one students left when they were sent home before spring break in March, the last time Knox County schools were in session: face masks, physical distancing, temperature taking, and constant attention to hand-washing and disinfecting.
And the decisions had to be made at the height — so far, at least — of the COVID-19 pandemic in Knox County, with new records for active cases being set every day and no immediate relief in sight.
As of last Thursday, about 17,000 students had signed up for the virtual option, meaning that more than 1 in 4 students will not be physically in the buildings when — or if — schools reopen as planned on Aug. 17. That number will likely go up somewhat as the school system works through a backlog of technical issues some parents encountered in trying to register.
In conversations with parents across the county, regardless of which decision they ultimately made, there were some common themes. Most said they expect the schools to ultimately be closed by the pandemic for some period of time regardless of their choice. Many resented being forced to make the choice on such short notice and with incomplete information — just a week between the unveiling of the district’s reopening plan on July 15 and the decision deadline on July 22.
Many also said they wished schools would begin online-only for everyone, at least through Labor Day — the approach taken by Metro Nashville schools and many other districts across the country. And while many, especially those who are sending their children back for in-person instruction, said they trusted the administration of their local schools, there was widespread distrust of and disappointment with the decision-making and communication from the school system administration and the school board.
Every family’s decisions were shaped by their specific circumstances. Here are snapshots of how nine of them made their choices.
Sarah Stamp: ‘It seems rushed’
Sarah Stamp recognizes that not all families have the option to keep their children home. But she and her husband do.
“I’m home, and my husband works from home as much as he can,” Stamp said. That made the decision to enroll her second-grade daughter in the Virtual Learning Program relatively easy.
Zoned for Cedar Bluff Elementary, Stamp’s daughter enjoyed her kindergarten year and the three-quarters of first grade that she was able to attend before the school closed in March. But the pandemic data doesn’t make Stamp feel good about returning.
“The cases rising in Knox County and us being designated as a hotspot did not make us feel safe in sending her,” Stamp said.
Among other things, she worries about what socialization lessons her daughter would learn from being in restricted settings where everyone’s wearing a mask and nobody is allowed to touch.
“Do I want her to learn for the next six months or year or so that she can’t hug or share things with other kids?” Stamp said.
She is not fully confident that the virtual learning program will be effective. She said they would try it for a while, and if her daughter’s struggling or not connecting with the material, she will withdraw her and do home-schooling for the year. She is connecting with other Cedar Bluff parents who have signed up for online classes as well, in hopes of creating at least some sense of community and some level of social interaction.
But, Stamp added, “I think the options are terrible. I am not happy with either option. It seems rushed.”
Benny Smith: ‘We’ve got to go with what we know’
Benny Smith was already leaning toward letting his daughter return to school in person when the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) announced plans last week to conduct a fall sports season. There was no way his daughter, an avid soccer player, was going to sit it out.
“It kind of defeated the purpose to do virtual learning if she was going to be participating in soccer,” Smith said.
Adding to the decision was that his daughter will be a freshman this year at Powell High School. She already missed the end of her 8th-grade year, with all the events and transitional activities that typically accompany it.
“We want her to be able to take advantage of the opportunities high school has to offer,” Smith said.
The decision, like those for many families, involved multiple parties — Smith, his daughter, his wife and his ex-wife all agreed on what would be best for her. Even with all the restrictions that will be in place in the classroom environment, Smith thinks it will be preferable to online learning.
“I’d much rather her be able to be in a class to have a teacher to speak with directly,” he said.
That said, he has reservations about the school system’s plans. Given the current COVID-19 data in the county, he is not convinced school should open in-person to anyone on the current time schedule.
“I don’t think it should,” Smith said. “I think they should at least wait until Labor Day. But we’ve got to go with what we know.”
He added that the people he worries about the most are not students or parents but teachers given no option but to return to the classroom. “They’re the ones all of us feel the most sorry for,” he said.
Melissa Cox: ‘The best decision right now’
For Melissa Cox, who has children at all three Hardin Valley schools — a kindergartener, an 8th-grader and a 10th-grader — the choice of the virtual learning option was driven partly by uncertainty about what in-school instruction will actually be like.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution,” she said. “With the limited information that I have, that Knox County released last week, I feel like I have more questions than answers. They don’t really know what they’re doing, either.”
She said it wasn’t even clear how or to what degree mask-wearing will be enforced for students, and that the Central Office seemed to be leaving a lot of implementation up to individual schools.
“I can’t make an informed decision if I don’t have the information, and every single school is different in how they’re dealing with it,” she said.
Cox said she would have preferred a hybrid model, where small groups of students could rotate in and out of in-school and at-home learning. That option was the least preferred by parents in a survey the school system conducted in May and June, and Superintendent Bob Thomas said it would create a lot of logistical difficulties.
Cox and her husband both work full-time — “I still have to do my work, I don’t get a pass just because the schools don’t seem to have the greatest of plans” — so for her youngest child, Cox is planning to collaborate with two friends who also have kindergarten students.
But she said she prefers that to having her daughter’s first in-school experience be as strained and strange as this year is promising to be. She also worries that if her kids were in school, she might still be faced with juggling constant disruptions as one building or another closes to contain virus outbreaks.
Her 8th-grade daughter, whom Cox describes as “a social butterfly,” was the most reluctant to accept virtual learning, which Cox said she understands.
“I said, ‘This might not be the best decision, but it’s the best decision right now for you based on the limited information that we have,’” she said.
Students in the virtual program can still participate in extracurricular activities, and Cox’s 10th-grade son is still planning to play football this fall. Cox said she knows some people might find that contradictory, but she said exposure to a limited group of students, mostly outdoors, seems much safer than spending all day inside with hundreds of other students.
Ultimately, she said, “This is just the situation that we’re in, and I have to make the best of it.”
Eleanor Scott: ‘They hate being in front of the computer’
Eleanor Scott’s daughters will be in 6th and 8th grade at Vine Middle School this year. They will be attending in person, for a combination of reasons. Scott doesn’t think they’re quite old enough to be home by themselves all day, and she worries about the impact on their learning.
“Both of the girls really love school, unlike me when I was their age,” she said. “They even love the building.”
Her younger daughter felt cheated at losing her 5th-grade graduation ceremony, her Safety Patrol trip and other normal year-end activities. Scott doesn’t want her to also miss out on the start of her middle school experience.
“They hate being in front of the computer,” she said of past efforts at online learning. “I’m worried about them falling behind, especially if other kids are going to school.”
Like many other parents, Scott expects that the girls’ school will be shut at some point during the year. But at least they will have already met and connected with their teachers, she said, which should make virtual learning easier.
She also takes some comfort from an email sent to parents last week by Vine Principal Desiree Jones, which said that 49 percent of the school’s students had signed up for the virtual learning option. That probably means classrooms will have fewer students than usual and it will be easier to maintain distance.
“They’re really big mask-wearers,” Scott said of her daughters. “They’re really good about that. They’re pretty good about social distancing.”
Still, she thinks the school system is being unwise by forcing people to make the choice at this point.
“I think it’s awful that they’re opening up anyway, with the case numbers rising,” Scott said. “I’m just sort of used to the (district) leadership making bad decisions.”
Dominique Oakley: ‘Let’s quit playing’
Dominique Oakley has wide-ranging experience in education as both a teacher and parent, and she applied all of it in deciding to keep her two children home for online instruction. Her concerns are driven as much by emotional needs as academic ones.
“We are not prepared for the emotional component that these kids are going to be bringing back to school,” said Oakley, who worked as an elementary and special education teacher in Georgia before moving with her family to East Tennessee.
Her twin 11-year-old sons are in the Karns schools, but they have vastly different needs. One is severely autistic and requires full-time attention from special education teachers, while the other is in regular education classes.
She said her autistic son in particular has suffered from being out of school. “We’ve lost everything he’s gained (during the school year), and then some,” Oakley said.
But she thinks special education teachers in particular will struggle to deliver effective services under the pandemic-driven restrictions of in-person schooling. And health vulnerabilities — her own and other family members’ — make COVID-19 a particular concern. Oakley has been reading the evolving science on the virus, and she is concerned about its potential long-term effects.
“We only have six months (experience with the virus), we don’t know what five years is going to look like,” she said.
Oakley thinks the school system is moving too fast in reopening, driven by political and economic pressures rather than health considerations. She thinks it would make more sense to wait until September and hope community transmission of the virus declines.
“Another month is not going to kill anyone, but opening a month early will kill people,” Oakley said.
She formed a Facebook group called Dead Kids Can’t Learn and organized a drive-by protest on July 17 outside the Andrew Johnson Building. Dozens of cars circled the building, honking horns and emblazoned with signs that said things like, “An apple a day doesn’t keep COVID away.”
Another protest co-organized by several groups is scheduled outside the Andrew Johnson Building at 5 p.m. today.
“We know it is not going to be safe on Aug. 17 or even Aug. 21,” Oakley said. “Let’s quit playing.”
She said that all the emphasis on getting children back to school overlooks the stress that students will all be operating under, regardless of whether they’re at home or in the classroom.
“We are not in any way going to be able to instill new knowledge in these children until COVID-19 is no longer an ‘I might die’ fear for them,” Oakley said.
Cathy Olsen: ‘There’s always a risk’
In weighing the best decision for her family, Cathy Olsen drew on her childhood in New Zealand. She was the kind of kid who was sent outside to play for hours, and her mother never fussed too much about scrapes or scratches.
“My mum was always like, ‘A little bit of dirt won’t hurt you,’” said Olsen, who has a son entering 3rd grade at Rocky Hill Elementary and a daughter starting middle school at West Valley. They will be attending in person.
Olsen knows the coronavirus is more than a little dirt, but she said she’s never been too risk averse. And she thinks the possible downsides of the children staying home are higher, both academically and safety-wise, given that she and her husband can’t stay home full-time with them.
The children’s experience with trying to do work online in March and April also informed the decision.
“They kind of were OK, it was a novelty for maybe a month,” Olsen said. “And then after that they started struggling and having a hard time with it.” Her daughter told her, “I didn’t like school, but school’s better than this.”
Her daughter will have to ride the school bus, masked, since neither Olsen nor her husband can make the daily trips to drop her off and pick her up.
“She was very excited to go back to school. When we talked about taking the bus, she was a little more anxious,” Olsen said. Her son has also expressed some uncertainty about what school will be like. Olsen hopes they will both become comfortable with the new routines and safety requirements.
“There is a risk,” she said. “There’s always a risk of disease. It’s just a part of life.”
Still, given the current trajectory of this particular disease, Olsen suspects that it doesn’t much matter which choice families have made. She thinks a combination of infected students and teachers will probably lead to shut downs.
“I’m sure it’s going to break down,” she said. “We’re probably going to end up being virtual anyway.”
Becky Walker: ‘Uncertain about any of the solutions’
While Knox County public school parents have struggled with their options, Becky Walker just wishes she had some. Her three children are all enrolled at Concord Christian School in Farragut, and the school’s reopening plan does not include an online learning program.
“I think it’s just they really want us back on site, because we did do distance learning at the end of the school year,” Walker said.
She has health vulnerabilities herself and is taking the pandemic seriously. “I am high risk,” she said. “We do get out, but we wear masks everywhere.”
Conversely, the school is not requiring masks for students. Walker said she’s confident her children will wear theirs, but they will still be exposed to classmates. Even if there were an online option, she’s not sure she would use it.
“I think I’m uncertain about any of the solutions,” she said. “I really want them to go back to the building for the fact that they do need the socialization. These are kids, and they need to be around other kids.”
Concord Christian is a relatively small school, with about 600 students across all grades K-12. That is not as big a pool to be exposed to as Walker’s children would face at the crowded Farragut public schools. But, she said, that is of limited comfort.
“Even though we have less kids, we also have less space,” she said. She believes maintaining any kind of distance between students and teachers will be difficult.
Still, Walker said, she is ready for school to start in some form. Concord Christian is scheduled to open on Aug. 13.
“I definitely agree it’s time to start back, and we’ve got to get these kids learning again,” she said.
Rhonda Bostick: ‘It’s not my life, it’s hers’
Rhonda Bostick’s daughter is a straight-A student with specific career ambitions. The rising junior at L&N STEM Academy wants to go into biomedical engineering. She is registered for an AP Biology class this year that includes lab work and will not be available online.
“It’s not my life, it’s hers,” Bostick said. “She’s the one who has a degree she wants to pursue.”
But Bostick is the one with underlying health factors that put her at risk of complications from COVID-19. Recognizing that, her daughter told her, “You can decide, because you’re the one at risk.”
Bostick said that she and her husband have come up with a plan for anyone infected to live in the downstairs part of their house. But they both agreed that they wanted their daughter to be able to go to school.
Even if the school eventually closes because of an outbreak or her daughter needs to be quarantined, Bostick said she will be able to continue her classes remotely because she is starting them in person.
“Those kids who are registered in their classes who have to self-isolate, they are allowed to continue on with their teachers,” she said.
Bostick, who describes herself as “a science person,” said she has done a lot of reading and research about possible risks of classroom instruction during the pandemic and how to mitigate them. She praised the L&N administrators and said she trusts them to do the right thing.
“I have every confidence that our staff and our administrative people can and will pull this off,” she said.
She is less complimentary of the district’s reopening plan, which she said is missing important details.
“I don’t see anyone putting forth a plan of action in monitoring cases and contact tracing,” she said. “It’s all a little scary.”
Still, she said she and her husband were willing to accept the risks for their daughter’s sake.
“Our young people need to be back in school and learning,” she said.
Caroline Mann: ‘I like them safe’
In deciding what to do for her two high-school age sons this fall, Caroline Mann drew some comfort from the experience of her older daughter, whose classes at Pellissippi State Community College moved online this spring.
“It worked out pretty well for her, so I’m assuming Robert’s course work will go the same,” she said of her older son, who will be a junior at L&N STEM Academy. His younger brother is a rising freshman at the same school.
Mann’s biggest concern about sending her kids to school in person is that there won’t really be effective ways to keep both students and teachers safe.
“I don’t believe the school board or the state or federal government have invested enough in actually making schools safe, and I don’t think they can,” she said.
She’s hopeful that online instruction will include breaks and independent work time, so that her boys won’t be just glued to a computer screen all day.
As for what it would take to make her comfortable sending them back to school in person, she has a straightforward answer — if not one that’s likely to be satisfied in the short term.
“A vaccine would make me comfortable,” Mann said. “It’s so hard to get back in a normal head space. I like them home, I like them safe.”