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Flexibility will be the key word for the 2020-’21 school year, Director of Schools Ina Maxwell said Tuesday night. 

In a letter with the reopening plan, she notes this school year includes “unchartered waters” for parents, students and educators amid the continuing health crisis.

“It is essential that everyone understand that this plan is constantly evolving and changing based upon new data and new information related to COVID-19,” she wrote. 

Schools are set to open Aug. 5. Parents can choose in-person instruction at their school or an online option. The Cumberland County Board of Education also voted to require masks or face coverings be worn in schools. 

The draft plan includes various health checks, changes to the school day and plans for remote learning should active infections of COVID-19 in the county continue to increase. Those are detailed in a Frequently Asked Questions feature on page 7 of this edition. 

However, there are some areas where the school system does not have flexibility. The state mandates a 180-day school year with seven hours of instruction each day.

Teresa Boston, 8th District representative, said, “They have not waived any mandates as they did in March.”

Maxwell and others said the school system would work with families to provide the best education possible in the safest environment possible. Plans are in place for daily temperature checks, protocols for if a student shows symptoms of the virus, attendance measures in the event of exposure, and changes in the school structure if community spread increases.

 

Masks

Several members of the board questioned why masks would not be required.

Robert Safdie, 2nd District representative, said, “I cannot support a proposal in which it is recommended. It must be, from my perspective, mandated.”

Shirley Parris, 3rd District representative, agreed with Safdie, saying she’d had numerous emails and calls on the issue. She also said many people want to see the school system delay opening. 

Parris did not attend the meeting in person, noting that not all the people present at the meeting wore a mask.

Jim Inman, 1st District representative, agreed masks were needed, at least for older students, particularly in high school. 

“They’re going to spread this disease if they come in contact with it,” Inman said. “I would feel much more comfortable if we had a mandate saying a certain grade up, everybody has to wear a mask.”

Inman wore a mask during the meeting, adding that he “hates this thing,” but felt if the students would be required to wear them, he should, too.

Becky Hamby, 7th District representative, said there are situations where medical conditions prevent people from wearing a mask. She has a note from her doctor stipulating that she should not wear a mask.

“So what are we going to do with our children that medically cannot wear a mask, but yet their parents would like for them to be in our schools?” she asked.

Safdie said medical exceptions would be an important part of the process. 

Maxwell said, as an educator, students and teachers need to see each others’ faces, particularly in reading instruction. 

Stace Karge, 9th District representative, pointed to recent increases in COVID-19 cases in Cumberland County. The county added 12 active cases from Monday to Tuesday this week, with 85 active cases.

“I think we have a bullseye on our schools,” she said. “Do I think we need to get back into school? Yes. Do I think we need to explore every opportunity to keep our kids safe? Yes.”

She said the daycare centers operated by the Crossville Housing Authority require children to wear masks to attend. 

“Those littles are wearing their masks except at nap time and when they are eating,” Karge said. “They are able to do this at the pre-K level.”

Inman said, “At some point in time, we’re going to have to put everybody’s health at the forefront and mandate that everybody’s got to wear a mask.”

Tom Netherton, 6th District representative, said schools could start with a mask mandate and adjust the policy as needed. 

Maxwell said she would implement the board’s decision, but offered some various scenarios regarding masks in schools. Some school systems require wearing masks on buses, in hallways and as students arrive until they get to their assigned seat. Then, some systems allow masks to be removed. 

“These are suggestions I have seen in other plans,” she said. 

Inman said, “I have gone back and forth on this issue, but what it comes down to is I would rather be safe than sorry. I would rather mandate masks and listen to the outcries then to have to go to a funeral.”

Karge moved to accept the reopening plan with a change to masks. She proposed masks be mandated at school subject to situational appropriateness, as determined by teachers. 

Karge said her intention is to allow face coverings most appropriate for the student, to include the use of face shields.

Brock explained his intent in voting for the motion is to allow teachers to grant permission to remove masks as they deem safe.

“I trust our teachers to make that decision,” he said. 

Hamby said, “As much as I disagree with masks, I can agree to that.”

She seconded the motion.

Anita Hale, 4th District representative, noted that there is currently no mask mandate in Cumberland County. 

“I want to open our schools, but I don’t want to mandate masks,” she said. 

Inman said, “If it doesn’t work we can come back and fix it.” 

The motion passed with all voting in favor.

Next, Safdie moved to require all employees wear a mask or face covering, seconded by Parris. 

The motion passed 5-4. Voting in favor were Safdie, Karge, Brock, Inman and Parris. Voting against were Boston, Hale, Hamby and Netherton.

 

Starting school

 

Several board members questioned if the start of school should be delayed, possibly until after Labor Day in September.

“Wait until then. If this is calmed down, then we start. But otherwise, it’s not going to hurt these children to not start until later,” Parris said.

Inman agreed, but was concerned about how to complete 180 days in the school year when the start is delayed for 25 school days.

Brock asked, “Will we be any better prepared by delaying the start of school?”

Maxwell said trainings have been offered to teachers for online teaching, and those sessions will continue. The first weeks will be spent familiarizing all students with the online learning platform should remote learning be necessary, she said. 

Brock said, “I don’t see that delaying school until September is going to do any good except to give us another month to worry.”

Boston said she was concerned teachers have not had time to prepare for the online learning platform. However, she didn’t wish to delay school to September. 

“I fear we’re not fully prepared to work out all the kinks by Aug. 5,” she said. “I’m not certain we can accomplish this successfully by Aug. 5. I do not wish to extend it past Labor Day. But I do want to give our teachers and the parents and the students who choose to do virtual the opportunity to be prepared so that when they do start, they start prepared.”

Inman said delaying school until September would extend the school year into June 2021. 

Maxwell said many teachers have been using online learning for several years due to the one-to-one technology initiative. 

“Are they at different levels? Absolutely,” she said. “But are they are square one? Absolutely not.”

Delaying the start of school could impact teacher salaries. Teachers are paid for a 200-day school year, spread out over 24 pay periods from August through July. School officials were unsure how delaying school until September would impact salary payments, some elective benefit payments, and insurance and retirement payments. Those had not been explored because the board indicated at its July 6 meeting that school would start as scheduled. 

Karge moved to start school Aug. 5.

“I do think we have the time,” she said. “The parents who are going to choose that option are going to need to be proactive, and it’s a good time to start.”

She was encouraged by conversations with Maxwell regarding family mentors for online learners, possibly enlisting graduate education students or others. 

“I think the support she has solicited and already received, I think they’ll be ready,” she said. 

The motion was supported by Hamby.

Maxwell said the central office has fielded numerous calls and let families know a virtual option would be offered.

“I think a lot of families have been considering what their options are going to be and waiting to see what we will offer,” she said.

The motion passed with Parris voting no.

 

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.