The Cumberland County Board of Education approved a change to the school system’s 2020-’21 calendar, moving back the first full day of school to Aug. 12.

“I would like to make the recommendation that we take three of our days that are factored into the school calendar and move them to the beginning of the school year in order to assist our teachers and administrators with some additional time for preparation,” Director of Schools Ina Maxwell told the board.

The board held a special-called meeting Friday afternoon, noting any changes to the calendar had to be approved by the state before school began.

“We’re in a little bit of a time crunch,” said Teresa Boston, 8th District representative. The school calendar began on Monday with a teacher inservice day. All school system faculty and staff reported to their schools that morning.

Students are set to attend registration and an abbreviated school day on Wednesday, Aug. 5.

“We desperately need that day to get a registration count to know how many students we will have in person,” Maxwell said.

Schools can also reach out to families who do not attend to determine their intentions for the upcoming school year. 

Maxwell said there had been a good response to the virtual learning option, with 936 students choosing that option: 600 at the elementary level and 336 at the high school level.

There were 7,188 students enrolled in March prior to school being closed for COVID-19.

“We are looking at a second window of application for those who missed the first window or have changed their thinking,” Maxwell said.

That window has not yet been determined.

Orientation for online virtual learning began Monday afternoon. The orientation session is required for both parents or guardians and the student. It includes a review of the virtual school handbook, issuing a device for online learning, and a review of how to use Google Classroom.

Maxwell proposed moving a Sept. 25 teacher in-service day, a Jan. 5 administrative day and an April 19 teacher in-service day to Aug. 7, 10 and 11.

“This would allow our teachers and administrators a little bit more time because we are in such uncharted waters, and it is ever evolving and changing,” Maxwell said. 

Students would report for their first full day of school on Aug. 12.

The inservice and administrative days that had been later in the school year would become instructional days for students. 

Under state law, the calendar must have 200 work days for teachers and 180 instructional days for students. The teachers’ work year includes 10 vacation days taken during fall break and spring break. 

Dates for fall and spring break would remain as scheduled.

Members of the board questioned if the additional three days of preparation would be sufficient. 

Jim Inman, 1st District representative, said teachers liked having an administrative day before students return from winter break. He asked about moving an administrative day to Jan. 4.

Kim Herring, student information systems administrator, said that change would result in teachers working 201 days in the school year. 

Robert Safdie, 2nd District representative, asked if days could be taken from fall and spring break to provide more time for teachers at the start of the school year to prepare for online instruction.

He asked if a representative of the Cumberland County Education Association was present. The representative was not part of the electronic meeting. 

“I feel badly we don’t have a CCEA representative here to help us with the discussion,” he said. 

Safdie said he had heard from several teachers who were concerned about starting the new school year with so many changes in instructional methods. He proposed removing a day or two from those breaks to postpone school until Aug. 17.

He said schools will not know how many students to plan for until Aug. 5. He questioned if that was enough time to adjust student classroom assignments or schedules for online learning.  

“The feedback I’ve gotten from teachers is they’d like a little more time to prepare,” Safdie said. 

Maxwell said several training sessions have been held, and more are planned. 

“We know we have got to provide a level of support — we’ve never done this — but we’re making preparations to assist those who need that extra support to go into this,” she said. “But it is going to be a constantly evolving, changing situation.” 

Tony Brock, 5th District representative, said he liked the proposal from Maxwell, which offers consistency and predictability in school days. 

Herring cautioned the board against changing dates for breaks when they have not said that was a possibility. 

“Whenever we change a break — and I get that this is a very different year — we have families that sometimes have things planned,” Herring said. “It puts principals in a very difficult situation to have to make judgments on excusing absences for vacations.”

Stace Karge, 9th District representative, said schools would need to make exceptions for families who had made vacation plans during those breaks. 

She also questioned the time available for orientation for parents and students choosing the virtual option. She was informed Friday afternoon of her orientation — set for Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. She said she was concerned that short notice could prevent some families from taking part in the session, which is a requirement.

Maxwell said there would be consideration of extenuating circumstances and schools would be working with their families to arrange those sessions.

Safdie asked when teachers would know how many students they will have online. Maxwell said teacher class rolls would not be finalized until after the Aug. 5 registration day. Then, administrators can see how many will be in person and how many virtual. Schools already have rosters based on last year’s enrollment. 

Online students do not need to attend the Aug. 5 registration day. They will be attend their orientation instead.

Anita Hale, 4th District representative, said she believes the modified calendar is a good plan and that Maxwell had been working hard to develop a plan to meet the needs of students, teachers and families.

“And I think we need to get behind her and support her,” Hale said. “Let her open these schools. She knows what she’s doing — it’s all the Central Office people. They’ve been working very hard.”

Hale said teachers she’d talked with wanted to start school.

Tom Netherton, 6th District representative, moved to approve the calendar modifications proposed by Maxwell, with Becky Hamby, 7th District representative, supporting the motion.

Karge said she believed more time was needed.

“The parents do not have all the information that we need,” she said. “Parents are begging for more information.”

The school system has published a list of common questions regarding virtual learning on its website, ccschools.k12tn.net. The Crossville Chronicle also compiled a list of frequently asked questions using discussions from meetings and other resources in recent weeks.

Brock said, “I feel like we’ve got a plan in place, and it can be adjusted if necessary. We’re going to have to do it sooner or later. Waiting is not going to solve the issues. 

“Let’s get schools started. Let’s do the best we can. We’re going to find out anything else we can do to make the teachers’ ability to teach easier, to make the classrooms safer — and we’ll do it. But we’ve got to get started.”

The motion passed 8-1, with Karge voting no. 

Inman and Safdie voted in favor, though both said they would prefer more time. 

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.