County school students heading back

Assistant Director of Schools Casey Kelley updated Cocke County School Board members on plans to return to school in early August during their meeting Thursday evening. Supervisor of Special Education Patricia Ellison is in the background.

NEWPORT—It won’t be “business as usual,” but plans are for Cocke County’s 4,500-plus students to return to the classroom starting August 3.

Meeting Thursday, July 11, members of the Cocke County Board of Education voted to allow Director of Schools Manney Moore to amend the adopted calendar for the 2020-2021 school year to meet this goal.

With Director Moore attending the meeting via ZOOM, Assistant Director of Schools Casey Kelley summarized weeks of planning for the coming year to the board and asked for their approval.

“We have worked all summer,” Kelley said, “discussing whether or not to return normally, not return at all, and everything in-between. Our teachers are working hard to become Google Teachers. We have to teach everybody to be different, and time is not our friend.”

Working to meet a state-deadline of July 24 to submit a continuation of learning plan, Kelley said local education leaders have one goal: “How will we ensure that each child is educated?”

Kelley emphasized more than once the need for teachers to have time “on the front end of the school year to figure out” what they will be doing.

The amended calendar calls for Tuesday, July 28, to be an administrative day, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, July 29-31, to be in-service days, and for students to begin to return to school on a staggered system starting Monday, Aug. 3.

Giving teachers three in-service days in a row will help them plan their teaching strategies and become acquainted with new health-related guidelines, according to Kelley.

“Our plans call for one-third of the students in grades 1-8, plus all high school freshmen, to return to school on Aug. 3,” Kelley said. “On Aug. 4, another one-third of students in grades 1-8, plus all high school sophomores, will return to school, and on Aug. 5, the final one-third of children in grades 1-8, plus all high school juniors and seniors, will return.”

Teachers and principals will determine which students will make up each third. “Families will be attending on the same day,” Kelley clarified.

Schools will be closed for the election on Aug. 6. On Friday, Aug. 7, teachers will be required to work to evaluate the previous week, Kelley said. “At that time, we will fix the problems and decide whether or not to continue to stagger the days. Our goal is to have all students in school starting Aug. 10.”

Kelley said it will “be impossible to socially distance kids on the buses and in the hallways,” adding later in the meeting, “Students will have assigned seats on the buses. We simply do not have enough buses to social distance our riders.”

Kelley said all bus riders will have their temperatures checked every morning when they board a bus. “Each child will be temperature-checked each day before they enter a classroom. The bus riders make up about 40 percent of our student population; once they are checked before they get on the bus in the morning, they will not have to be rechecked upon arriving at school.”

Following a request from Patricia Ellison, Special Education Supervisor, the board agreed to allow children in grades Pre-K and Kindergarten more time to be staggered into the year.

Kelley said that teachers will be instructed on what to do if a child becomes feverish in class.

“There will be lots of questions arise that will not apply to every school,” he added.

Board member Richard Coggins posed the question, “If a child become sick in class, will all the students in that class be quarantined?”

“That depends on the proximity of the students,” Kelley responded. “This is the protocol we have received from Nashville.”

“Not every sick child will have the virus,” said Board Member Rose Lovell. “But they will have to be treated as a COVID-19 case until they are screened out,” responded Kelley.

Board member John Johnson voiced his support of returning to school. “I do not see how we can be successful without being in an actual classroom,” he observed.

Kelley agreed, but said three informational meetings are scheduled for parents interested in learning more about remote learning. The meetings are scheduled for July 14 at Cosby, July 15 at CCHS, and July 16 at the Central Office, starting at 6 p.m. each night.

“I think we are about to get into the biggest mess we’ve ever been in,” said Coggins.

When asked if students and staff will be required to wear masks, Kelley answered, “As a parent of a student, I think it’s wise, but there are specific cases when a child/adult cannot wear a mask. For example, a child with asthma. Today we highly recommend, but not require, masks be worn. We have to do everything we can to be safe in our classrooms.”

Continuing, Kelley said, “We won’t come back unprepared, but we must give our teachers time on the front end.”

Ellison added, “We must do everything we can to decrease the anxiety on the part of our children.”

Board member Darla Morgan, a pediatric nurse practitioner, asked if there are plans in place if “lots of teachers are out. I feel good about our kids. I’m more concerned about the teachers who have lower immune systems. During this whole time, I’ve only seen one child with COVID, and I see about 35-40 patients each day.”

Kelley said plans to increase the number of substitutes have been made.

Other steps taken include the purchase of 300 webcams so that lessons can be stored. “If a student becomes ill and is out, the lesson can be downloaded later.”

He also stressed the increased cleaning practices in the schools. “Our schools are safe. Our kids and teachers will come back to a safe environment.”

Board chairman Dr. Ken Johnson, before calling for a vote, thanked Kelley, Moore, and the other administrators for their continued hard work. “Change is difficult, and we are in a season of change. We will have students and teachers who contract COVID, whether or not they go to school. Let’s be thankful we have tools to deal with this.”

In other action, the board approved several items, including

• various fundraiser requests from different schools

• various requests for use of school facilities

• the lowest bid of $111,704.00 from TN Mechanical & Industrial, LLC for a new air-conditioner for the Cosby High gymnasium.

• an agreement between the Cocke County School System and Camelot Care Centers, LLC to offer therapy/mental health services to eligible students at Parrottsville Elementary School. The agreement begins August 2020 and ends May 2021, with Camelot Care Centers to bill Medicaid, private insurance or responsible parties for services provided the children

The board’s next meeting will be Aug. 13.

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