A number of teachers, counselors, support staff members and even two building-level administrators tested positive for COVID-19, which led to school being delayed for a month, Dr. Jeff Perry, Hamblen County school superintendent, said.
“It is my opinion that we will be informed of several other staff members testing positive as the week continues,” Perry said. “Each of these individuals already testing positive, and those who are awaiting the results of their tests, would have been unable to report to duty if we had reopened Friday. This would have dramatically increased our student-teacher ratios in the classrooms and would have created even more unsafe working conditions.”
Perry made his comments during a briefing to the public on the Hamblen County schools’ web site.
Perry made the decision to keep schools closed last week until Sept. 8 after Labor Day. But, even then, he said once that date comes closer the school system will have to look at the best options for school reopening, whether that be a hybrid model of online mixed with in-school learning, online or all in-class.
The choice to keep schools closed comes as Hamblen County continues to see a spike in COVID-19 cases, which has led the state to label the county a hot spot. Active cases in the county continues to climb and Hamblen County is in the top four counties in the state with the highest rate of new cases per day.
Perry said in his update that he knew many parents were are frustrated and angry about his decision to postpone school. But, he said he had to make his decisions based on safety of the staff and students.
“I attempt to listen closely to those whom we serve in the community, but I do not make decisions based on the most current social media post or those who are shouting the loudest,” Perry said. “I make every decision based on the most current and accurate data that I have.”
Another key point for not reopening schools was access to learning, Perry said.
The school district ordered 2,700 laptops in the spring, but those have not arrived yet due to current issues in the supply chain.
“We could have moved to online instruction district-wide to start the school year, but a significant number of our students do not have access to computers or internet at home,” Perry said.
The new computers are schedule to arrive on Aug. 28 and the school system will image those computers as soon as they get them, but he said it will take some time to process almost 3,000 computers.
“Starting school after Labor Day should place us in a situation where we have the flexibility to participate either virtually, in the classroom or a hybrid model of virtual and in-class instruction based on health conditions at that time,” Perry said. “It is our hope to bring students back in the classroom as soon as we can.”
The school system originally was going to distribute laptops this week to elementary and middle school students, but have now pushed that back to the week before Sept. 8.
Computers have already been deployed to West High School due to the thought that school would reopen this week. He said the school system will go ahead and distribute laptops to East High School students next week.
Perry has said the school system has enough laptops to distribute to those who have signed up for online learning, but if schools go to online only, they will need the 2,700 laptops on order.
The closing of schools has also led the school system to expand the extended school program, or ESP. The program will reopen on Aug. 3. Perry said they will only charge $10 a day for the month of August.
He said the school system will open three locations at Alpha Elementary School, Russellville Elementary School and Hillcrest Elementary School to assist parents who are working.
The food service program is also offering free meals to students 18 and under. Parents can pick up breakfast and lunch at Hillcrest Elementary School Monday to Friday between 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
It will be a drive-thru service with meals served at people’s vehicles.
Perry also said because of the delayed reopening some parents have reevaluated online learning. He said a shortened registration will take place between Aug. 17-21.
Perry also said he knew the decision will impact the school calendar. He said the school system is currently working on an updated school calendar.
“We are working on different school calendar options, which we will submit to the community soon,” he said. “We will post the calendar options, conduct a parent/staff survey and collect feedback before making a decision. We will post these options and survey on our website by the end of the week.”