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Knox County Schools is two weeks into the year. What’s happened and what’s ahead.

Two weeks ago, more 40,000 students entered Knox County classrooms. An additional 18,000 students logged onto virtual learning. Since reopening, the district has rolled out free meals for all students, bumped up pay for substitute teachers and added more detail to its public COVID-19 metrics 

There is also a new plan to let after school childcare providers watch students on days when a school or the district is in the “red,” or operating virtually.

But Knox County Schools doesn’t operate in a bubble — if cases in the community go up, the district almost certainly will see more cases, too.

Lurking in the background of this school year is the specter of a districtwide shutdown like the one that brought schooling to a standstill in March.

The shutdown exposed weaknesses and inequalities in Knox County Schools — the district was unable to switch wholesale to virtual schooling in the spring because not all students had access to a school-provided computer or Chromebook. The district fixed that problem with an investment of about $7 million — paid for by the federal CARES Act that provided pandemic relief — to make sure every student has a machine.

Now that every student is equipped with a Chromebook and much of the first days of school were spent learning how to use them, the district has the capability to go fully virtual. Many think it’s just a matter of time.

Superintendent Bob Thomas told Knox News the goal is to stay in-person for as long as possible, even as the district had to put one school — Cedar Bluff Middle School — into virtual learning for five school days beginning Tuesday.

Even with the challenges already cropping up, Thomas said he already feels confident that reopening Aug. 24 — after two one-week delays — was the right call.

Thomas said teachers have told him that the extra weeks helped them feel prepared to teach virtually if needed.

“I think they appreciated the extra time, but I feel like that we were right where we needed to be,” Thomas told Knox News in an exclusive interview Friday.

“I appreciate parents, too, being patient. I know there were some parents that maybe didn’t like that second week of the delay. But I think too, they realize after seeing what they’ve seen, that the more time we spent on the front end trying to get our teachers and our schools ready, the more that’s going to pay off for us.”

There are plenty of people who think schools opened too early. There’s a motor march planned for Wednesday to call for online learning until the 14-day average new case rate is less than 10 per 100,000, the 14-day average new case rate is declining, the positive test rate is less than 3% and test results are available within 24 hours.

Even with the two-week delay, some advocated for an even later start. Former County Commissioner Evelyn Gill said she wanted schools to start after Labor Day. 

KCS faces challenges. It must find enough substitute teachers who can supervise students when a teacher has to quarantine and teach from home. The district is offering two levels of financial incentives for substitute teachers and also wants to fill 20-25 full-time district substitute spots.

Thomas said he thinks the $500 bonus for substitutes working 15 or more days a month will be effective. But he said the district has had trouble attracting full-time subs and might need to increase pay.

“We’re getting folks but it’s just a really slow process right now; we need to have 50 or 60 people show up for 25 jobs,” Thomas said.

The district is also short custodial staff. Thomas said he wants to fill those positions, but he said misting equipment allows custodians to cover a lot of ground when cleaning.

Going red

Under its reopening plan, KCS has contingencies that allow a class, grade level, school or the entire district to go “red,” or completely virtual.

Although Thomas said he wants to have as many students as possible learning in the classroom for as long as possible, he acknowledged that could change if cases surge after holidays.

Like clockwork, cases jumped two weeks after Memorial Day, Father’s Day and the Fourth of July, according to data provided by the Knox County Health Department. 

It can take up to two weeks between a person contracting COVID and showing symptoms. That makes mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing, surface cleaning and staying home when sick all the more important.

“We’re going to exhaust every possibility before going red unless there’s a situation where the governor says, “We’re going to close schools down,’ or the health department or whoever has the authority to say, ‘This is what you’re doing to,’ obviously we would comply,” Thomas said. 

“But our effort is going to try to do everything we can do to avoid a shutdown, if we can, and still maintain safety for students and staff.”

For his part, Thomas said he wears a mask, washes his hands frequently and works too much to really be at social gatherings in the first place.

“I’m willing to do anything that I ask anybody else to do,” Thomas said.

Communication is king

As students or staff contract COVID-19, communication between schools and families becomes increasingly important.

On Tuesday, the state will launch a dashboard that includes individual school case counts. But Knox County Schools’ own dashboard does not include data by school.

Thomas said the district wants to be transparent and works closely with its law department to make sure it’s respecting student and staff privacy. The district says it is prevented from releasing much data by FERPA and HIPAA, the federal privacy acts that apply to student educational and health records.

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said these two laws protect individuals’ privacy but the public has the right to know what’s broadly happening in schools.

She said she thinks districts are worried if they release school data, people will use it to play detective and identify infected people. 

“It all comes down to, ‘Are we somehow identifying that Joe Smith in third grade has COVID-19?'” Fisher said.

But privacy concerns are dueling with the public’s right to know, Fisher said.

“That has to be weighed with the need for the public to know what’s happening in the schools,” she said. “People don’t want to make decisions about their kids in the dark.”

Thomas said he understands families want to know information and he praised the state’s efforts, but said families will receive more timely data on the district dashboard since it is updated daily on weekdays — the state’s dashboard is updated only once a week. Thomas said the district will continue to update its dashboard. The district does not plan to provide school-by-school data on the dashboard. 

It is a district requirement that if there is a confirmed COVID-19 case at a school, the school will alert all families and staff, Thomas said. 

When it comes to the district’s communication, Thomas said he wanted to present the community with a reopening plan that was comprehensive. By doing so and soliciting feedback, the district made changes, such as the previous requirement that teachers had to teach in school buildings even if a school was in red.

“The changes we’ve done is basically because we’ve listened,” Thomas said.

A school year like no other

Thomas said he is impressed with all of the work teachers are doing. He said teachers are assessing what learning loss has happened and are adjusting well to virtual instruction.

He has visited both in-person teachers and virtual teachers. 

“I’m just really impressed with the fact that we’ve been able to do in-person and do a virtual learning program and try to, (as) best as we can, provide all parents with what they need. I know some parents are not happy with us,” Thomas said.

“I think we’ve done and — are doing a really good job — of addressing the challenges that have come up so far, but we’ll continue to get better, to improve and as we find out problem areas, we’ll do what we need to do to address those.”

Knox County Schools, by the numbers:

  • There were 557 calls to the district’s IT help desk on the second day of school. There were 19 calls to that same hotline halfway through the day Sept. 4. 
  • There were 253 calls to the virtual learning support line on Aug. 27. There were 28 calls to that same hotline halfway through the day Sept. 4. 
  • The district’s HR department reached out to a list of 1,300 substitute teachers. About 470 or 480 of those people said they were willing to sub, Thomas said.
  • The district wants to hire 20-25 full-time substitute teachers. These teachers would supervise students when their teacher is at-home quarantining, but still providing instruction.
  • Eight to 9 million: That’s how many dollars Thomas expects the district will ultimately spend on COVID-19 related expenditures. 
  • One-to-one: the program that allows every Knox County student to have a laptop or device. 

Isabel Lohman reports on children — their education, health, welfare and opportunities. Follow her on Twitter @isalohgo. Make our community, our society and our republic stronger by supporting robust local journalism. Subscribe to Knox News at knoxnews.com/subscribe.

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