Virtual Limits

Gov. Bill Lee

Virtual Limits

As the state imposes restrictions on remote instruction, Knox County plans to open three new online schools this fall.

by jesse fox mayshark • april 13, 2021


Gov. Bill Lee discusses virtual learning at a press conference on Monday.

Knox County Schools will still be able to offer online learning this fall, but it will have to be structured differently than it has been this year, and it will have an enrollment cap of 4,500 students.

Gov. Bill Lee has pushed school systems to emphasize in-person instruction.
The State Board of Education approved rules Monday for what it calls “continuous learning plans,” which make clear that the options Tennessee schools have been allowed to provide during the COVID-19 pandemic will not be available during non-emergency times.

Under the emergency rules adopted a year ago as the pandemic hit, school systems were able to offer either in-person or virtual instruction, or both. Knox County took the latter approach, allowing families to choose either for the fall and spring semesters.

About 18,000 students enrolled in the district’s Virtual Learning Program in the fall, and about 13,000 in the spring. Those students remained enrolled in their base schools and were able to participate in extracurricular activities at them.

Knox County had announced that it would continue to offer virtual learning for next fall for those who wanted it and was planning to begin enrollment this week. But Superintendent Bob Thomas put those plans on hold last week once it became clear the state was going to set limits on remote schooling.

The rules adopted Monday mean school systems will not be able to offer virtual instruction from a student’s zoned school, as they have this year, except during declared emergencies. Instead, they will have to create separate online schools under an existing state law.

“While there is currently a state of emergency in effect, districts and charter schools should be making plans for next year with the understanding that when that state of emergency is lifted, (continuous learning plan) implementation will no longer be an option,” Amy Owen, director of policy and research for the state board, said during Monday’s meeting. “Students who want full-time virtual education will therefore need to enroll in virtual schools.”

Virtual schools are capped by the state at 1,500 students apiece. Knox County will organize three of them for this fall, said Carly Harringon, the district’s director of public affairs — one each for elementary, middle and high school, for a maximum total of 4,500 students.

Based on the action of the state board this morning, we will be moving forward with establishing a virtual school for each grade band,” Harrington said in an email Monday. She said this was the structure the school system had planned to adopt for 2022-23, so the state's mandate just moved those plans up a year. 

Gov. Bill Lee has emphasized the importance of in-person education throughout the past year, and he reiterated that position Monday, stating, “In-person learning is safe and it’s the only way our students will get back on track after significant learning loss. I support the State Board of Education’s work to ensure that in-person learning is again the standard in Tennessee and virtual learning is reserved for emergency use only.”

Harrington said Knox County is still putting together its virtual school plans, but the programs will be treated essentially like stand-alone schools. They will be part of the school system and will be staffed by Knox County teachers hired specifically for online education.

Students who enroll will apply for a transfer from their zoned school in the same way they would to go to a different brick-and-mortar school. Virtual students will not be able to participate in athletic or band programs as they have this year, since they will no longer be enrolled at their zoned schools.

More details on the timeline for transfers and operation of the virtual programs will be forthcoming soon, possibly by the end of the week.

The Knox County Board of Education is scheduled to discuss its plans for health protocols for in-person instruction in the coming year at its meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 14, in the Main Assembly Room of the City County Building.