The scheduled start of the 2020-'21 school year is a little more than a month away, but the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis has many parents, teachers and students wondering what will happen on Aug. 5. 

"It's the question every parent is asking: is there any thoughts on school reopening?" Stace Karge, 9th District representative, asked during the June 25 meeting of the Cumberland County Board of Education.

Teresa Boston, 8th District representative, said, "Everybody wants to know. We want to know. But we're going to have to discuss what our options are."

A work session and special-called meeting have been set for July 6 at Central Services, 368 Fourth St. The work session is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. with a special-called meeting to follow at 7 p.m.

In the meantime, school administrators will review responses from a parent and teacher survey distributed online over the past weeks.  The parent survey asked about preferences for returning to school, including returning on a regular schedule with new safety protocols, using online learning, or implementing a staggered attendance schedule. It also asks about transportation needs and technology availability, specifically internet access. 

The Tennessee Department of Education has developed a variety of toolkits to assist local school systems in developing school calendars and addressing specific questions for school services while providing high-quality instruction to all students in a safe environment.

"The department has been in constant communication with Tennessee’s school district leaders to identify questions and areas that need further consideration as we look toward the coming school year,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “We are excited to be hearing from our districts and educators as they dig into the toolkits and resources, and we look forward to continuing these conversations to help provide guidance for our districts and schools as they make local decisions regarding the fall.” 

Schwinn emphasized that the toolkits are only meant to offer guidance and help local school leaders work through questions and scenarios to prepare for the coming school year. The toolkits are not a mandate, with each district responsible for developing its own plan.

Last week, the State Board of Education approved emergency rules requiring each school district to submit plans for how they intend to provide 180 days of instruction in the 2020-'21 school year. 

State law mandates 180 days of school, with 6 1/2 hours of daily instruction. The state will require continuous learning plans that detail how school systems will track student attendance, provide technology and learning materials, communicate with parents, and support students with special needs. 

"Most of our students suffered academically this spring because we were unprepared, and we don't want to go into a new school year similarly unprepared," Sara Morrison, executive director of the state board, told Chalkbeat last week. "The idea is to ensure that our districts and schools can provide ongoing instruction while also anticipating tha school is not going to look like business as usual."

Plans are due by July 24.

There have also been calls for a special legislative session to address COVID-19 immunity legislation. 

J.C. Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, said the legislation is critical to protect school systems, educators, and communities from potential litigation. 

Such a measure championed by business and industry groups failed to pass before the Tennessee General Assembly adjourned June 19. A version of the bill passed by the state Senate had provided retroactive liability protection, and that House did not adopt that version of the bill. 

School systems across the state are grappling with how to return to school in August. Metro Nashville has indicated support for as many remote learning options as possible, while Hamilton County released a four-phase plan that considers the number of positive cases in the community. 

Rutherford County is considering offering distance learning as an option in addition to a traditional school reopening plan; a hybrid plan requiring two days of in-person learning complemented with three days of distance learning; or a daily distance learning plan for all students. The county is also launching a separate virtual school for homebound or medically fragile students. 

Sunday, Cumberland County reported 35 active cases, down three from the day before, with 121 people recovered. The county has reported three deaths due to COVID-19 and 13 hospitalizations since the health crisis began in March, with 6,610 people tested.

The state added 728 cases Saturday for 40,172 positive and suspected cases since March. To date, 26,159 people have recovered, an increase of 406 from Friday, and there have been 584 deaths, an increase of seven from Friday. Hospitals have treated 2,564 patients. There have been 748,229 people tested in the state.

The state did not release updated figures for Sunday.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.