By Jill Penley
In March, as the coronavirus began to spread, schools dismissed for what turned out to be the rest of the school year, and state lawmakers passed emergency legislation that waived the required 180 days of classroom instruction along with annual spring testing. State and local education officials are working on a plan to reopen schools.
“Johnson County Schools places the safety of our students and staff above all else,” said Dr. Mischelle Simcox, Director of Schools, who explained when planning for what the 2020-2021 school year will look like, surveys were created parents, teachers, and staff. “Between the three surveys, we received over 1,000 completed surveys,” said Dr. Simcox. “Across each survey, the majority wished to return to in-person classes for the upcoming school year.”
The Centers for Disease Control and the Tennessee Department of Education have released general guidelines to schools to assist in the planning process. When testifying before U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) as part of the full committee hearing on “COVID-19; Returning to School Safely” in early June, Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner, estimated reopening schools in the state would cost an additional $100-$150 per student for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), disinfectant, and other items designed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
The state’s guidelines, based on whether the virus is spreading in a particular area and how prepared individual schools are to handle logistical challenges, suggest that Tennessee education may look like a patchwork of learning models across its 147 districts, and sometimes even within each district, during the 2020-21 school year.
“We are currently working on our return to school plan with both an in-person option and a virtual option for students after reviewing the resource tools and guidance provided by the Department of Education,” said Dr. Simcox. “As we continue to develop and revise our return to school plan, we are hopeful of returning to classes for the 2020-2021 school year.” At this time, Johnson County schools are set to start school with a half-day on August 4 and anticipate following district calendar approved by the Board of Education in the months before the pandemic.
The state’s guidance document mentions a need for “strong measures,” such as requiring facemasks, temperature checks, and social distancing. But it does not address limiting class sizes or specifics for how to keep students 6 feet apart.
“As we continue to work with our staff, local health organizations, community stakeholders, and other government agencies, our plan may change,” said Dr. Simcox. “We will release our formal back to school plan in the coming weeks that will include very specific procedures and guidelines.”