Much uncertainty as schools set to re-open

Published 4:21 pm Friday, August 7, 2020

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There’s much uncertainty on the part of both teachers and parents as school is set to re-open in Elizabethton and Carter County.
Across the state of Tennessee there is an ongoing debate about the proper way to reopen K-12 schools this month as the coronavirus pandemic has shined a light on the numerous things expected of our education system that it was never intended to do.
Beyond learning, our schools provide child care when parents are at work. They ensure no child goes hungry. Most students get both breakfast and lunch. Schools often serve as the window into mental well being and what goes on at home.
Now, a school year unlike any other approaches, with the threat of an outbreak of a potentially deadly virus looming over every decision.
Areawide, all school districts have entered the “red” phase of reopening as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in our region.
Five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, public and private school officials across Tennessee have unveiled a patchwork of plans for a return to schooling even as cases among children are climbing and much remains unknown about the virus’ impact on children.
In light of everything, the demand to ensure children are in school has merit. But so, too, do calls to require remote learning until COVID-19 slows down, as a rise in infection rates could shutter schools.
However, this year will take flexibility and adaptability on the part of schools, parents, teachers and elected officials – not further politicization of education. The entire community, both in Elizabethton and Carter County and elsewhere in the state, must step up to the plate.
Ultimately, it’s up to local school officials to decide when and how to reopen schools. However, Gov. Lee has used his bully pulpit to make his preferences clear. Lee said the risks of keeping classrooms shuttered far outweigh risks associated with the virus for children who are hungry, abused, or emotionally traumatized, as well as students with disabilities who face inherent barriers to virtual instruction.
His critics, meanwhile, have blamed him for not taking bolder steps, such as issuing a statewide mandate to wear masks, to suppress the virus as active cases continue to rise. That’s put educators, students, and parents in a tough spot, they say.
In some ways, the governor’s stance on reopening schools runs counter to his own administration’s early reopening guidance, which took into account local community spread and district preparedness. A document released by the education department in early June offered a framework to help school leaders decide if it’s safe for students to be in school buildings or whether to consider alternative instructional models.
Last week, the state released new guidance tilting heavily toward keeping school buildings open, even if local community spread of the virus is high. If one or more cases in school buildings can be quickly isolated and all contacts easily traced and quarantined, the document suggests shuttering a classroom or perhaps a hallway for 24 hours for cleaning before reopening those areas.
“There will be cases in schools,” said Dr. Lisa Piercey, Lee’s health commissioner. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that we have a very detailed plan” to mitigate spread and minimize disruption.
Dale Lynch, who heads the state superintendents group, said anxiety is at an all-time high among school leaders, who must make the calls on school openings, especially as reports emerge of staff members, athletes, and students testing positive before classes even begin. He said it’s tough making science-based decisions when the information frequently changes and the guidance sometimes conflicts.
“Our No. 1 priority is to keep our students and staff safe, but we’re educators, not health officials,” said Lynch, noting that Tennessee is also woefully short of school nurses.
For the present, Elizabethton City Schools will have both in-person and online classes.
Carter County plans virtual classes as the infection rate continues to climb locally.
Accordingly, the school year won’t look the same in Elizabethton or elsewhere in the area.
Getting through the 2020-21 school year will come with challenges. It will likely involve some school closures to combat outbreaks. But it will require creativity and ingenuity to ensure the safety of everyone involved and that students’ needs are met while the pandemic rages on.

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