WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) — The Williamson County School Board is having a specially called meeting over the district’s COVID-19 protocols after sending a letter asking state leaders to allow a remote learning option.
“We are seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases, the Delta variant seems to be more susceptible, young people are getting that more. So there is a concern. So we’re exploring options and have been for weeks,” said State Representative Brandon Ogles. “Nobody foresaw that we would still be going back into the school year dealing with these issues again, and I just applaud our administrators, our parents, and our teachers, all of which are extremely exhausted by this whole process.”
Ogles was one of the lawmakers to whom a letter was addressed and signed by Williamson County Schools Superintendent Jason Golden and Franklin Special School District Superintendent David Snowden.
“We ask that you urge the Governor and the State Board of Education to immediately allow districts to resume their Continuous Learning Plans (CLPs) to address the current COVID surge,” the letter stated.
The CLPs allowed districts to transition individual schools or grade levels to remote learning when warranted last year.
“There are options for children who leave as a result of quarantine,” said Governor Bill Lee during a press conference Wednesday.
However, according to state education leaders, the State Board passed a permanent rule in April 2021 limiting the ability for districts and public charter schools to utilize a CLP to provide remote instruction in the 2021-22 school year unless the Governor declares a state of emergency and the commissioner of education grants permission.
One of Williamson County’s middle schools closed for a day after going over 33% student and 30% staffing absences last week. The district had to use one of its 10 stockpiled days because they didn’t have enough staff. Now leaders said more schools are inching closer to that crisis point.
Ogles said he’d already been in contact with school leaders before they issued the letter, and he’s been discussing possible options to address the superintendents’ concerns of running out of stockpiled days.
“If there was some hybrid option to allow, instead of just an open, close, allow those schools to go remote, and not extend the school year into the summer,” Ogles said. “On a very, very limited basis, and a system that would not be abused, and take those kids out of the classroom except for situations where it was surely a spike in that school system.”
He maintained that in-person learning was the best option for educating children.
“We don’t need to revert back to remote learning and remove those teachers given the vital role they play with those students for interaction,” Ogles said.
The superintendents in WCS and FSSD also said that having students learning remotely when needed was more valuable than no instruction. Governor Bill Lee cited the importance of in-person education for a remote learning option but said it remains off the table.
“The primary thing we need to remember is the significant decline in learning when children went remote if we care about the kids and their education and their educational attainment, we ought to do everything we can to keep from having them leave the classroom,” Lee said.
Leaders in Williamson County and FSSD point to many of their students having success during remote learning in the 2020-2021 school year.
“Williamson County actually saw some great strides despite the fact that they were remote,” Ogles said. “It’s dependent on the district. But I will say that right now, I don’t think we’re as focused on test scores. We’re trying to get those families help, those teachers help, get people back to work, and keep safety as the number one priority. I mean, our kids are our most valuable asset, we want to be sure they’re safe. We want those families to be safe. We want these teachers to be safe, as we work through this pandemic.”
The latest update from the district showed 485 students and 94 staff members in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. The district updated its mitigation strategies this week limiting visitors and volunteers in schools to only those with essential business, not allowing visitors at lunch, and limiting assemblies during the school day. Also, indoor events such as open houses and parent nights will transition to virtual events.
“The Delta variant of COVID is creating new and different issues in the battle to fight the virus,” WCS Executive Director of Health and Safety Gary Anderson stated in the update. “In an effort to try and limit the number of people coming into the building who aren’t students or staff, WCS has put some additional strategies in place. These new mitigation strategies are another piece of our ever-changing COVID landscape, and we appreciate the continued support of our school communities as we continue to navigate through this pandemic.”
Masks remain required for students, staff, and visitors at the district’s elementary grade levels inside all buildings and on buses until September 21st.
“It’s not my job to tell a parent what to do but what I would say is if you want to protect your kid from the virus or quarantine, the best way to do that is to have your kid in school in a mask, but I also fundamentally believe that parents should individually make that decision for their children,” Governor Lee said.
Ogles agreed that having a child wear a mask should be the parent’s decision, instead of a mandate. He said comments from his constituents in the 61st district are split down the middle.
“I get 50 emails a day saying we love them [masks], I get 50 saying they’re terrible. It’s almost like that on every issue right now. Completely divided. And these are hard issues for administrators to deal with,” he said. “Regardless of how you feel about mask, or vaccinations, at the end of the day, these administrators and teachers are giving their all to educate our children and we should be grateful to them for doing that. That is a calling and a service that most people do not have. So if you want to help, write a letter to your teacher, put a note in your child’s bag when they go to school, might send an email, make a call, encourage our teachers. They are tired and this has been hard on everybody.”