School Matters: Should we stay or should we go?

Case for Requiring All Students to Return to School

Earlier this week, I spoke with our student leadership group virtually. We have approximately 40 students in the program, and this is an extremely sharp and talented group of young men and woman. During this specific session, we were simply attempting to connect with the students and plan our next event. However, I wanted to know how they were doing during the pandemic and identify the areas in which the school district was not meeting the needs of our students. Our leadership group is composed of West and East High School juniors. The majority of the students stated the school year was very different but they were doing okay with their academic classes. However, some of the students expressed a concern virtual education was not a viable option for them.

A few of the students indicated it was sometimes difficult communicating with teachers when they were virtual. The reported teachers had to balance so many things while teaching online it was hard to pay attention to those in class and those online. Some also commented they lost, and missed, some of the personal interactions they had with staff and other students. Some stated they simply were not successful with virtual education because there were too many distractions at home, they did not have the appropriate attention span, they were not motivated enough to learn independent of the teacher’s direction, and there was little sense of connection with the teacher. Others reported some students were developing poor work habits, and probably the work ethic among virtual students was diminishing.

Many of our administrators and teachers want our students to return back to the classroom so we can help them be more successful. Maintaining a virtual and in-class program at the same time is a challenging and complicated endeavor. Classroom instruction would be much easier, and probably more effective, if all students were in the classroom and the teacher could just focus on those within his or her classroom. A significant number of our students are not doing well virtually, and we need them back in our classrooms. We are spending an enormous amount of time attempting to connect with these students and catch them up on all schoolwork.

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from a high school student who articulated her struggle with virtual education. It was an email that had a significant impact on me. The student wrote it was a struggle getting up in the morning to attend school virtually and she missed the social interactions associated with high school. Many of her friends had decided to attend virtually so there was little need for her to return back to school. She indicated she was feeling disconnected, unengaged, and had little sense of community. Life was difficult for her, and she was struggling. I am confident many possess similar feelings of being detached and remote.

Our case count is at an all-time low with only 16 active cases. This includes 15 students and 1 staff member. Our cases have been trending downward for the past several weeks. It appears school is a relatively safe place to be at this point.

Case for Maintaining Virtual Education

As always, there are two sides to any story. Some of our students are doing extremely well with virtual education and are thriving. Some of our leadership students expressed they were attending school virtually and were progressing without complications. They were very content staying home and attending online. These students stated they possessed other means of personal contact and were extremely comfortable with the online program. These students saw little need to make any changes.

Some are concerned the virus could surge again after spring break and create major health problems for staff and students. There are legitimate concerns families have been confined for several months, and there will be an overwhelming need to travel. This interstate travel will expose our community to multiple families, and spring break has the potential to be a super spreader event. Some parents have argued their children are doing well, and we should not disrupt this success. Many families have expressed a concern someone in the immediate family has serious medical issues, and they cannot attend in person. Others have expressed a view they will not return to school because they are firmly against the wearing of masks.

Again, I received an email from another high school student. She indicated she was doing extremely well with the online program and did not want to come back to school. She did not understand why we would force her to come back to school if she was performing at an acceptable level with the same work as everyone else. She also reported her parents were elderly and were not in great health. The parents’ health was not severe enough to warrant a physician’s note for exclusion from school, but the increased anxiety would have a detrimental impact on their health.

Time to Make a Decision

It seems decision making during the pandemic is never an easy process because there are never clear right and wrong answers. There are multiple viewpoints with compelling interests. We have numerous reasons to bring all students back to school. Conversely, there are other legitimate reasons to continue virtual education throughout the school year. After much discussion and consideration, we will adhere to the following protocols:

1. We strongly encourage all grades 3-12 students to return to school after spring break. Students are missing several key elements of the instructional process we cannot provide in the virtual environment. Vocational classes requiring hands-on learning, laboratory sciences, practicum experiences, class discussion/interaction, and the ability of the teacher to communicate in person with students are extremely difficult through online instruction. We ask parents to send students back to school so we can optimize their educational experience.

2. We are even more adamant K-2 grade virtual students return to in-person instruction after spring break. Academics are a major component of the instructional day, but there are other critical areas addressed during the school day. We focus on the physical, emotional, and social development of the child. This cannot be fully accomplished through a virtual environment. K-2 students may be doing well academically online, but these other developmental elements may not mature, and these children will likely struggle next year.

3. Students and parents with medical conditions may remain in virtual education throughout the remainder of this school year. These conditions must be verified by a physician, and the note must be presented to the principal.

4. Students who have not been successful with virtual education must return immediately to school. Attendance and graduation coaches have already begun the process of filing petitions against students who are simply using virtual education as a means of being truant from school. Any child who has had a grade lower than a cumulative “C” for all classes, or excessive absences for the year (more than 10 days by February 19) will lose their option of attending virtually and must return to school. Students not returning to school will be considered truant, and we will be forced to involve the courts to enforce compulsory school attendance.

5. Students must return to school on April 5, which is the start of our final nine-week grading period, assuming health conditions allow. Students may remain virtual if they meet the following criteria:

a. Demonstrate they are performing at a high academic level by maintaining at least a “B” cumulative average in all subject areas (all classes combined must be at least a “B”) for the third grading period. Kindergarten and first graders must perform at least in the 40th percentile, or above, on the winter universal screener reading assessments to remain virtual.

b. Maintain strong attendance by missing no more than 5 days during the second semester. Students must attend all classes and participate fully to be counted present.

6. Students shall not be allowed to participate in athletic competitions, prom, and other school-related events if they are excused from school with a physician’s note. Students should not be attending these types of activities if they possess health issues preventing them from coming to school. This exclusion only applies to students who are unable to attend school for medical reasons.

7. We will continue the online option, but we are readjusting our focus and priority to in-class instruction in grades 6-12. Maintaining both virtual and in-class instruction has been extremely challenging for many of our teachers. It is difficult for us to dedicate attention and focus on both platforms at the same time. Teachers will begin transitioning most of our attention to in-class instruction, and again, we strongly encourage students to attend in-class if possible after spring break.

8. It is important to note we will have state mandated testing in the spring. All students in grades 2-8 will be required to take these tests which must be administered in school. There is no virtual option for this due to state law. Many students in grades 9-12 will also be required to participate in the state mandated testing. The test window opens May 3 – 26. Each school will have a different testing schedule and they will communicate with students on specifics later.

In many ways, having students attend virtual is easier for our administrators and teachers. However, we do not believe this is the best learning environment for the vast majority of our students. We understand there are some medically compromised students/parents who need to stay home, and we are committed to providing an online option for those families. With the number of positive cases sharply declining and the vaccines becoming more available, it is time we need to consider returning to school. We are making these decisions because we care deeply about our students and their long-term success. As we have stated numerous times, we will continue to monitor the health condition of our schools/community as we make future decisions. We sincerely appreciate your attention to this article and remember, School Matters!

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