Schools preparing for new routines as Tennessee plans return to classroom

TML Communications Specialist

While students are still enjoying their summer break, officials at K-12 schools, colleges, and universities are preparing for the safe return of students and staff in the fall.
While many state school districts are vowing to have a full return to the classroom, some districts and parents are concerned about classrooms contributing to further spread of the disease. Likewise, many universities, colleges, and community colleges across Tennessee are looking at a mix of in-person and remote learning options for their fall semesters as well as canceling traditional breaks that might contribute to the disease’s spread.
On the federal level, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump have both said they want to see schools reopen in the fall. During a conference call with the nation’s governors, DeVos said she expects schools to be “fully operational.”
“Ultimately, it’s not a matter of if schools need to open, it’s a matter of how,” DeVos said. “School[s] must reopen, they must be fully operational. And how that happens is best left to education and community leaders.”

The cost of returning to in-person classes is also a major concern for many. Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said each individual school district in the state may have to spend between $1 million to $1.75 million to purchase cleaning and hygiene products, personal protective equipment, and other necessities that will be required for in-person classes. Schwinn said some funds from the CARES Act will go to covering these expenses, but there will still be a “significant need.”
Gov. Bill Lee and the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group announced $81 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) funding is available through grants for K-12 schools and higher education institutions to assist with plans for safe reopening.
“Reopening our schools, colleges and universities is a key priority and grant funding ensures institutions can make proper accommodations to keep educators and students safe as we continue to fight COVID-19,” said Gov. Lee. “This first wave of funding provides for technology and distance learning support as well as measures to improve social distancing.”
This first wave of grant funding includes releasing $11 million for grants to local education agencies (LEA) to support reopening efforts from the Coronavirus Relief Fund Grants with districts eligible to receive between $25,000 and $150,000 each. An additional $50 million will be made available to support technology grants that can be used on wi-fi devices, laptops, or any other devices needed to support reopening that allows a match program.
Some education officials have also expressed concern about whether or not younger students and students with special needs are capable of maintaining appropriate social distancing, wearing masks, and other health practices in a classroom setting. Most states are requiring students to wear face masks when returning to school and some have even required face shields as well as face masks for staff or both students and staff.
To help guide school districts in this process, the Tennessee Department of Education has released a series of toolkits encouraging education officials to dive deeper into considerations, recommendations, and best practices for the upcoming school year.” The toolkits provide information from ideal classroom set up to preparing school meals to transportation, staffing, and professional development.
“We are encouraged by the feedback we have received statewide from district and school leaders in response to our school reopening toolkits and guidance, and we will continue to partner with our districts as they prepare for the fall and make local decisions on how to best serve their students,” said Commissioner Schwinn.
As chair of the senate health and education committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said much of the nation is trying to figure out a way to safely return to school in the fall during a special education committee hearing titled “COVID-19: Going Back to School Safely.”
“The question for governors, school districts, teachers and parents is not whether schools should reopen – but how,” Alexander said. “Any teacher can explain the risk of emotional, intellectual and social damage if a child misses a school year. Schools need to assess how this year’s disruption has affected our children and get student learning back on track.”
Alexander suggested school boards, superintendents and principals should focus on the following steps:
Creating an environment where students and teachers can socially distance;
Making modifications to the school year calendar and daily schedule;
Preparing to integrate more distance learning;
Restructuring classrooms and extracurricular activities;
Providing meal services in a safe way;
Making sure the school has gloves, masks, and other protective equipment; and
Protecting students and adults in the school buildings who are at a higher risk.

For many students, Alexander said school is a lifeline that keeps them safe and focused on the future with many families relying on schools for programs like free and reduced lunches and breakfasts as well as child care during working hours.
If schools do choose to continue with alternative learning, educators have expressed concerns that there isn’t enough technological infrastructure for online education. More than three-fourths of educators said they needed more technological support for remote learning amid the pandemic, according to a survey conducted by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt University.
“Educators across Tennessee consistently reported on technological barriers preventing remote learning, their concern for student access to crucial services, and their need for additional guidance and resources,” said Susan K. Patrick, one of the study’s authors and a post-doctoral scholar with TERA. “These needs were even more pronounced in rural communities lacking internet infrastructure and schools serving more low-income families.”
Other top concerns expressed by educators included access, resources, and engagement. More than half of teachers said they were concerned students didn’t have access to remote learning or crucial services like meals and counseling when away from school.
More than two-thirds of teachers also reported that fewer than one-quarter of their students regularly responded to virtual classrooms or electronic learning resources. Teachers also described additional instructional needs, such as teacher training on virtual learning and guidance for supporting students with disabilities and English learners.
Statewide, re-opening plans will vary by district and on a case-by-case basis. The state is also working on guidelines for staff members on what to do if a student tests positive for COVID-19 this fall. Some K-12 school districts, like those in Maryville, Milan and Bartlett, have pledged to do their utmost to return to in-person learning in the fall.
Others like the Metro Nashville school system are polling parents and teachers on what they feel most comfortable doing for students and have floated suggestions such as remote learning options for students. Nashville education officials have also presented three possible school opening plans based on how high the risk of disease spread is when the school year starts.
The Clarksville-Montgomery County School System created a new position – an administrator of virtual learning – as part of the plan to allow interested parents and students to register for virtual learning over in-person classrooms if they see fit. The city of Oak Ridge will be returning to school on July 29, but students will have the option of learning online. Similar decisions have been made in Blount, Hamblen, and Jefferson counties.

Universities across the state are also coming up with ways to keep their communities safe when the fall semester begins. The state of Tennessee also announced grants to help higher education institutions reopen safely.
Gov. Lee announced $20 million in grants to public and nonprofit private higher education institutions for Coronavirus Relief Fund including 2-year (TBR) and 4-year public and private (TICUA) institutions.
These grants will be available to cover expenses associated with implementing social distancing and technological improvements for distance learning. THEC in cooperation with the Department of Finance and Administration will oversee administration of funds. Funds will be made available to institutions based on their low-income student population. Regionally-accredited public and private, nonprofit institutions of higher education (IHEs) who are both eligible for Title IV funding and domiciled in Tennessee may apply.
As precautions for public health, schools are expected to make physical changes, limit enrollment in on-ground classes, install or upgrade technology, and may adapt classroom configurations to ensure classes are taught in a socially distanced manner. Similarly, colleges may incur costs to provide student housing that complies with COVID-19 health precautions.
The University of Tennessee at Knoxville system announced students will be returning to campus in the fall, a decision made in coordination with UT System President Randy Boyd and the other system chancellors. UT created a Re-Imaging Fall Task Force headed by Chancellor Donde Plowman to find the safest way forward for students and employees.
Plowan said masks and face coverings will be mandated when students return in the fall. Teachers, who will be outfitted with face shields, will have extra masks for students needing help, and classes will be spread out for social distancing. Up to 40% of classes at UT system schools will be online this fall. Students won’t be allowed to hang out in dorm lobbies and will be asked to self-test and take their own temperature each morning before either going to class or to the health center.
East Tennessee State University has determined a start date of Aug. 24, 2020, with no fall break and the last day of in-person classes to be held on Nov. 21, 2020, before the start of the Thanksgiving break. Online classes will continue after the break with final exams taken online.
Similarly, Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro said they wanted to keep their reopening in the fall “more fluid.” A task force at the Tennessee Board of Regents recommended with doing away with the fall break typically held in October so in-person classes could end before Thanksgiving with final exams taken online.
The MTSU task force‘s report also emphasized that it may be necessary to revert to a full remote learning environment in the event COVID-19 hotspots are located near the campus, especially with medical officials predicting a resurgence of the pandemic in the fall.
The University of Memphis also plans to do a phased reopening with classes starting and ending earlier than usual. The first day of in-person classes for students will be Aug. 17, 2020, – a week earlier than normal – with the coursework and final exams completed before the beginning of the Thanksgiving break. Students will not return to campus after this break.