RUTHERFORD COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) – Leaders in the Rutherford County School district made changes to their policies surrounding COVID-19 as rising cases continue impacting teachers and students.
Christiana Middle School is closed Monday, Blackman Middle School has seventh grade closed Monday-Tuesday, and Rockvale Elementary School has grades 3-5 closed Monday-Wednesday. The district said these changes were because of “staffing related to COVID-19.”
“I am of the opinion that we should close schools where COVID issues have interrupted learning,” said Rutherford Education Association President Geneva Cook. “Teachers are quarantining, testing positive, students are quarantined or testing positive.”
Starting Monday, RCS teachers are asked to post their work for the week on a school-wide platform. This remote instruction is only available to students if they tested positive for COVID-19 or are isolated because of contact tracing.
“I’m glad that some things are being done now that there is some kind of a plan,” Cook said. “But I’m very concerned about the health and welfare of the students and the teachers. It is really difficult to be in this situation and to want everything to go just fine and want the kids to have all their fun activities. But it just might not be best for their health and welfare.”
She said it was frustrating to not have clarification from the state sooner about how students could learn remotely if they tested positive or were quarantined for contact tracing.
“I know that the districts have kind of been tied by the state. It’s been very disappointing to me that Governor Lee, who has usually been all about local lawmakers making decisions, kind of took it out of their hands,” Cook explained. “They didn’t have a continuous learning plan this year like they did last year. So we weren’t allowed to go to distance learning and that has been difficult as well.”
Tennessee’s education commissioner sent a letter Friday saying classrooms and schools that are facing a surge in COVID-19 cases and quarantines can now request a temporary shift to remote instruction if their districts can show a need.
“Last year we operated under something called a Continuous Learning Plan. It allowed us as a district to offer hybrid, distance learning, and traditional learning all at the same time regardless of whether a student was in quarantine, positive, or just chose to be at home for a different environment. That option is not in place for any school district in the state of Tennessee for the 2021-2022 school year,” said Dr. Jimmy Sullivan, RCS Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction in a video posted to Facebook.
He said at the start of the school year, there were far fewer students who were impacted by COVID so teachers could treat their absence like other illnesses where one or two students could get caught back up on their work once they return to school.
“With the change in quarantine and the additional cases we’ve had in Rutherford County that is not necessarily where we are. We have a lot of students who are out of our classrooms and so our teachers may have half of their kids in or a fourth of their kids in and that number fluctuates daily,” Dr. Sullivan said.
He said the newly available asynchronous learning option was for when a teacher had a few students absent due to positive cases or quarantines. The other change the district made was that if an entire classroom was quarantined and the teacher could provide instruction, they would be able to provide live, synchronous lessons.
“This is not going to be six and a half hours of live lessons. One thing we learned last year is that our students don’t necessarily do a fabulous job and it’s not successful for our kids to sit in front of a computer screen and watch a teacher for six and a half hours,” Dr. Sullivan said. “If an entire class is quarantined and the teacher is able to provide instruction we will have those availabilities to where our teachers and students will be able to participate daily in Zoom.”
He said if an entire school or the whole district were to close, the district will use one of its inclement weather days and students will not be provided with instruction. If the CLP is put back in place for the state, remote instruction could be provided at that time.
Cook said a lack of enough substitute teachers has been a challenge as well. She’s part of the district’s newly created health and safety committee where they’ve been trying to come up with ideas for how to address how covid is affecting schools
“They are allowing teachers to telework if they’re able,” Cook said. “However, if there’s no sub in the room who can get that started and turn that on for the kids, it’s still difficult. Sometimes I know students are having to just go sit in the cafeteria, or the gym or things like that, because there just aren’t enough people to monitor and watch.”
RCS Director of Schools Bill Spurlock shared a Facebook video last week where he said district leaders are working on an ongoing basis to address the challenges caused by the virus.
“I do understand those that are concerned about multiple times being contact traced and quite frankly there’s a good point with that,” Spurlock said. “We are working through that process and talking to our health officials and seeing how we can make that less impactful.”