School Matters

Over the last several months, I have heard numerous individuals express the desire for life to return back to normal. Last year was an extremely difficult year for many of us and we simply want life to be normal again. However, I wonder exactly what “normal” will be in the future. We live in a time in which one significant world event can immediately restructure our daily lives and disrupt what we consider to be normal. The attack on the Twin Towers, and one individual attempting to ignite a shoe bomb, dramatically changed the way we travel. We now endure long screening lines, are forced to limit the amount of liquids we take on a plane, and constantly worry if we left anything in our backpack the TSA agents would consider to be dangerous. Those events dramatically changed our perception of what normal air travel would be. These changes proved not to be temporary but now seem to be a permanent fixture in our lives.

Over the last 16 months, the virus has changed many aspects of our life. Although the severity of the pandemic has abated, there are still health risks. Several nations are still struggling with the pandemic, and they are experiencing new records for infections and those dying from COVID-related complications. It is my hope our nation is on the road to recovery, but we need to remain vigilant in our efforts to contain this because the pandemic is endemic.

The existence of the virus should not paralyze us with fear. It should not prevent us from returning back to work and school. Conversely, we should not be dismissive of the potential impact of the virus because it still can be fatal.

The presence of the virus will create a new normal for all of us. Some of these changes may be beneficial and could have a positive impact on our lives. We saw a significant decrease in the number of communicable diseases and viruses last year in school. Students and staff were more conscientious about washing their hands and not sharing personal items such as food, drinks, and cell phones. We also saw an explosion in the use of teleconferencing during the height of the pandemic. This saved an enormous amount of travel time, eliminated the potential dangers of driving to meetings, and allowed us to be more productive. The pandemic also forced us to create a viable virtual learning program for all students. This could be extremely helpful in the future if we were forced to close schools for other health issues or natural disasters.

Regardless of the positive, or negative, aspects caused by COVID, many of us want life to return to normal. It is our hope this school year will be more normal. It is our hope to begin the school year without the many of the restrictions we were forced to impose last year. We will always monitor health conditions but for now, we have plans to begin school with a greater sense of normalcy.

The intent of these articles is to keep our community informed about important school events. Please take a moment to review the following and contact us if you have any questions. We will answer those concerns in our next article. email Mrs. Karlene Webb (webbk@hcboe.net) with any concerns or questions.

1. We have no plans to issue a mask mandate for the upcoming school year. We will continue to monitor health conditions and may have to modify current plans. At this time, we will not require students or staff to wear a mask next school year in the classroom or on the bus. Students and staff may wear a mask if they so desire, but it will not be a requirement. We will conduct a public forum and allow individuals to voice their opinions if we have to consider issuing another mask mandate. However, we are not considering a mask mandate at this time.

2. We will not require schools to take temperatures before students enter the school. However, we ask parents to continue to closely monitor the health condition of their children. Do not send children to school if they have a fever or are experiencing some other type of legitimate health issue.

3. We will not have restrictions on the number of spectators at athletic events this year. Spectators will not be required to wear a mask at athletic events. We may create a small section of the stands or bleachers for those who still want to wear a mask. We know some parents/community members may be at a higher risk, and they may want to watch the game with others who are masked. We will allow all athletic events, scrimmages, jamborees, and practices to continue as we have done prior to the virus.

4. We will have a more balanced approach to quarantining students next year. We will not automatically force a student to go home if they were simply sitting next to a child who has tested positive. We will attempt to determine the actual level of exposure before sending any child home. We will be open and transparent about our cases, but we will not distribute a daily case count. Parents/guardians will be notified if a confirmed case occurs in their child’s classroom so they can monitor for COVID-related symptoms.

Students who test positive will be required to stay at home for the prescribed days specified by the Tennessee Department of Health. Public health officials will contact families and provide the return back-to-school date for each person. Students living in a household with family members testing positive will also be required to stay at home for the prescribed days specified by the Tennessee Department of Health. Again, health department officials will contact families requiring the specific number of quarantined days because it will vary greatly for each child depending on the unique situation of each family.

5. Make-up work and assignments will be given to students who are quarantined. We will not have a virtual option for students who are quarantined. Students will not be counted absent if they complete all assignments and do the following requirements. First, students must provide proof they have tested positive, or a member of the family, has tested positive. Second, students must complete all assignments and turn those assignments in by the specified date. Third, students must follow any other requirements established by the individual schools. Students will be counted absent if they are unable, or choose not to, adhere to these protocols.

6. We will return back to eating in the cafeteria as we have done in the past. We will restrict some of the self-serve options we have had in the past to prevent the spread of diseases and the virus. We will ask our food service staff to serve items on the line instead of allowing students to reach in and take specific items from the lunch line.

7. All students will be eligible for free lunch next school year. Parents are encouraged to continue to complete a free/reduce lunch application to be eligible for other state benefits, but this paperwork is not necessary for the school district’s breakfast and lunch program. All students will automatically receive a free breakfast and lunch this year.

8. We will allow students to attend field trips and participate in class/school club experiences this year. However, we will be reluctant to approve international travel or trips which have non-refundable deposits.

9. We will closely monitor athletic teams and attempt to quickly isolate athletes who appear to have the virus. Again, we will not automatically quarantine student athletes simply because they were standing near a teammate. We will attempt to determine the level of exposure before quarantining students. We will ask student athletes to more closely monitor their own health conditions and discuss any COVID related symptoms with their coach immediately to prevent team spread.

10. We will have some staff who have greater risk factors, and we may have to create a safer working environment for them. We may keep some of the plexiglass partitions, maintain more distance between students, limit physical contact etc. to keep our staff safe.

11. We continue to encourage staff and students to receive the COVID vaccination but we are not requiring vaccinations. Some of the research indicates vaccinations may not only help to keep us from getting the virus, but it may also help prevent the virus from mutating. Some of the research indicates a virus has more opportunities to mutate if it can spread. Vaccinations can help slow the virus’s ability to mutate because the virus has more difficulty replicating. Many world leaders are becoming increasingly concerned about the different variants of the virus because some of them are more contagious/dangerous. However, we still believe vaccinations are a personal decision, and the school district will not require vaccinations for enrollment.

12. We will not require parents/guardians to wear masks when meeting with school officials. However, school officials will wear a mask if parents/guardians request we do so during a meeting.

13. We will slowly begin to open up the school to visitors this year. We fully understand many parents/grandparents want to visit children during school. We want our parents and community members to feel welcome in school, but we also want to keep everyone safe. Please be patient with us as we navigate through the school year. We will limit visitors at the beginning of the year and monitor how things are going. We will lift some of these restrictions as the school year progresses if we have no major outbreaks. We will still ask parents wishing to bring in food items (such as birthday cupcakes) only bring in pre-packaged items and not homemade food. However, schools will be given the ability to conduct open houses and parent/teacher meetings prior to the opening of school if they elect to do so.

14. We will continue our efforts to sanitize the classrooms, furniture, and buses to keep staff/students safe. We will also continue our efforts to have students maintain safe/healthy hygiene habits such as washing hands, coughing into the elbows, not sharing personal items, etc.

15. Students may bring their own water bottles to school. Water bottles can only contain water. We are in the process of installing at least one water bottle filling station for each school to help eliminate some of the potential contagion factors associated with water fountains. This will not be accomplished in all schools by the start of the year, but we will do it as quickly as possible.

16. It is important to note community/school health conditions can change quickly and require the school division to make a variety of modifications to these guidelines. However, we fully understand changes within the school system can have a significant impact on our families and community. We will conduct a community forum to solicit feedback if we consider any major changes to these current guidelines.

17. There has been a great deal of communication, misinformation, and social media chatter concerning the teaching of critical race theory in our schools. Hamblen County schools values all children, staff, and community members regardless of race or ethnicity. However, there is no state or federal mandate to teach critical race theory in any of our schools. It is not a requirement (as recent media posts have indicated) from the federal government, and we are not required to teach critical race theory in order to accept ESSER money. We are required to teach the standards prescribed by the state department of education. None of those standards involve the teaching of critical race theory.

Adapting to a new normal will require patience, time, and energy. In time, the new normal will no longer be new, but will simply be normal. A child born after 9/11 would be more than 20 years old today. We have no child in school who had an experience of traveling without having to take their shoes off or endure the long screening lines. This is normal for them. As adults, we often struggle with the new norms because we often resist change in any fashion. It is inevitable world events will have an impact on us and will impact our sense of what is normal. Perhaps that is the new normal, and we must adapt to an every changing world. Regardless, it is our hope school can be at least a little more normal this year. We sincerely appreciate your attention to this article and remember, School Matters!

-Dr. Jeff Perry is superintendent of Hamblen County Schools.