NEWPORT—The Newport City School Board of Education held their November meeting in the Newport Grammar Auditorium on Monday night. The board was expected to make a decision regarding Cohorts, a program that enforces social distancing by placing students into predefined groups to mitigate transmission of disease, and contain any outbreaks to a small group of students.

Newport City Schools Director Sandra Burchette shared that nearly 60% of teachers stated that they would prefer for Cohorts to continue until at least the end of the third nine weeks. The board moved in accordance with this response, with the decision for the fourth nine weeks to be made at the February meeting.

The workshop for the meeting began with the COVID-19 report, in which School Health Coordinator Michelle Black reported that the school had two students who had tested positive for COVID, five students who had been exposed to COVID outside of the school and zero teachers positive/exposed. Black shared a comparison of this year’s COVID numbers to last years, showing that this year’s numbers were lower.

Board member David Perryman asked Black about what changes to exclusion would come in response to a change of the mask mandate. The board currently faces an approaching decision regarding their mask mandate pending the outcome of a lawsuit surrounding a recently signed legislative package, which would restrict the school’s ability to mandate masks.

Black deferred to Newport Grammar nurse Kathy Ragan, who told Perryman that the rules that already apply to unmasked students (those who opted out of the school’s mandate via Gov. Lee’s order) would continue to apply.

Black went on the share with the board that the school had received their COVID testing kits to provide on-site tests, which would begin after Nurse Ragan completed her training.

Cafeteria Manager Christina Leas reported the cafeteria’s figures to the board for the month of October. During the month, there were 2,977 servings of breakfast and 6,797 servings of lunch given to children, for a total of 9,774 reimbursable meals served by the school.

Leas also shared that the school was still struggling with food shortages. For instance, Leas was unable to purchase ham for the Thanksgiving themed meal, leaving turkey as the only option for students for that day.

“We put in for ice cream with Mayfield every single week, and we don’t even get half of what we put on there. So right now we’re kind of at everybody’s mercy, just taking what we can get just to try to make some extra money in the event that, if something does tear up, we have a little bit of funds to go back on,” Leas said.

Leas also shared that the cafeteria was in the process of a procurement review form the state, which is used to ensure the district is following the right channels for purchasing and procuring food.

Finally, Leas shared that the cafeteria staff was very thankful for being included in the pool of employees to receive a cash/time-off bonus from the board.

Principal Michael Short told the board that the cooling tower for the cafeteria had finally arrived and would be installed soon, allowing air conditioning in the cafeteria once more.

Principal Short also shared his pride in the school’s new teachers.

Assistant Principal Dustin Morrow shared that the school had hosted a successful Sno-Cone social before Halloween as a reward for students with good behavior.

Federal Programs Supervisor Amy Messer shared that the state was working on two Title Budgets, which would come before the board soon. Messer also shared that several teachers had recently completed their early literacy training, which brought the school to a total of 15 teachers who had completed the training.

Systems and Assessments Supervisor Dr. Justin Norton told the board that the school was in the process of completing its data monitoring obligations with the state, regarding several technology grants and other date.

Norton also shared that, using designated money from their ESSER 3.0 funds, the school had ordered 32 Boxlight smart boards to be installed in classrooms sometime after Christmas. These boards will fill the school’s inventory, meaning that each classroom will have a smart board installed.

Norton brought up the subject of substitutes, who have been notoriously hard to come by in recent months. Norton shared that eight people had signed up and been trained to be substitutes. Of those eight, four have been added to the sublist, and three of those four were present at the school on Monday.

David Perryman was interested in addressing the system that teachers use to find substitutes. As of now, teachers are responsible for reaching out to the available substitutes to find someone to fill in for them. In the event that multiple teachers are out, each teacher will end up calling the same substitutes and spending a significant amount of time, often the night before the day they would be absent.

“My question is, can we look into that? At least from a logistics standpoint, if one person is handling that, we know that this sub does not need to be called again… And I realize that that shifts the burden back to the central office here to handle that, but can you argue that? I don’t think you can argue how inefficient that is for the three teachers that need a substitute, for all of them to call that same sub, not knowing if that sub is even going to answer that call,” Perryman said.

“I retired with over 200 sick leave days because of this very reason,” Mickey Powers chimed in, “ I’d just as soon come to work sick as to have to fool with calling ten to fifteen people get them to come in. I’d just come on to work, because it was a lot simpler… It’s just tough, and there’s no easy way around it.”

The board discussed the issue further, and Director Sandy Burchette stated that the school would work on a plan to incentivize substitutes further and to make the process of scheduling substitutions easier for teachers.

Board Chair Jan Brooks brought up the possibility of hiring a full-time “floater” sub who would be available everyday.

Following the discussion, Director Burchette shared the results of a teacher survey regarding the continuation of the Cohorts program, which is in place to mitigate a potential outbreak of COVID. Of the teachers surveyed, 50% said that they would prefer for the program to stay in place for the rest of the year, 9.4% said they would prefer it last at least to the third nine week, and 40.6% would prefer that Cohorts only stay in place until the end of the second nine weeks. The board took the results to mind for the business agenda of the meeting.

Board Chair Brooks brought up the possibility of moving the December meeting from December 20 to December 13 to avoid conflict with the holidays. Board member Powers noted that the board often combines the December meeting with the November meeting, opting to not technically meet in the month of December.

After discussion, the board scheduled the meeting for December 13, with the option to cancel with 48 hours notice.

The official meeting was called to order at 6:34 p.m.

The board approved the minutes of previous meetings, and moved on to the business agenda.

The board approved two policies, one regarding how students exit school buses and the other regarding Title IX and sexual harassment.

The board approved three field trips, two fundraisers, and travel for Amy Messer to the Tennessee Literacy Conference in Murfreesboro.

Regarding Cohorts, the board approved the extension of the program through the third nine weeks, with the fourth nine weeks to be reviewed at the February meeting.

The decision was in line with the majority of teachers’ opinions, with 59.4% of teachers preferring the program continue at least that long.

Before the meeting adjourned, Board Member Perryman mentioned that the board should have a plan in place with regards to the ongoing lawsuit against the state’s ban on mask mandates. The board agreed to follow the results of the lawsuit, relying on their other protocols to closely monitor the situation in the event that the mandate is banned.

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