Hamilton County Schools releases plan for making fall return to class

Staff photo by Tim Barber / Hamilton County School Board Superintendent Dr. Brian Johnson

After weeks of planning, the Hamilton County Schools Reopening Task Force released its preliminary framework Thursday for returning to school in the fall, including a four-phase instructional plan for face-to-face learning.

Presented to the Hamilton County school board, the framework is based on recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state of Tennessee, input from the community, evaluations of other school districts' plans and more than 20,000 survey responses from parents and teachers.

Rather than a "how to" guide or a "set in stone" plan, the task force said the framework is meant to provide guidance and a foundation with room to adapt as time goes on and more information becomes available.

"If things change, then of course we have to be flexible as well," said retired Lt. Col. William Brooks, the district's director of the junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and co-head of the task force. "That's why we say the plan is not set in stone. We will be flexible. We will adapt over time, based on the situation."

According to the task force, individual parents will be given the option each semester to have their students participate in phased online and in-person hybrid instruction or to go completely online with the HCS at Home program.

[READ MORE: Many parents wary of sending children back to school this fall amid COVID-19 pandemic]

Surveys conducted by Hamilton County Schools show that approximately 30% of families indicated they would prefer to move to completely remote instruction.

For the fall, parents will have from July 8-July 22 to choose remote-only learning. Classes are set to resume on Aug. 12.

Phased approach

The current suggested framework for those wishing to return to in-person instruction is composed of four phases, among which the system can switch as necessary based on the current situation with the pandemic in Hamilton County.

The task force said movement between phases during the school year would be based on local active COVID-19 cases, infection rates, hospitalizations and advice from the Hamilton County Health Department.

If data and advice from officials dictate that the risk of spreading COVID-19 is significant, the district would move to Phase 1. In Phase 1, all instruction would be completed online for a period of time, much like what the district did in March after the novel coronavirus was first classified as a pandemic.

Phase 2 includes a hybrid approach for both virtual and face-to-face learning. In this phase, each student will have two days of in-school instruction and three days online.

Students will be split into two groups or cohorts, with half attending on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half attending on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be used for online learning and sanitizing of school facilities.

Phase 3 of the framework calls for schools to be on a remote, hybrid or open status on an individual basis, depending on the specific circumstances for each school.

While in Phases 2 and 3, the task force said hybrid instruction would likely include a mix of timing for which lessons students are being taught while working from home, and that fine details on how exactly that will work are in the works and will be somewhat up to individual teachers, lessons and students.

If cases in the county drop below a significant level, at or nearly at zero, and there is little to no perceived threat of COVID-19 transmission, the district would move to Phase 4, which completely opens all schools.

To further illustrate the phased system, during the board meeting the district's chief talent officer and task force co-head Keith Fogleman said that if the district were to start school now, based on Wednesday's infection rates and advice, it would be considering transitioning to Phase 2, the complete hybrid model with some students in class and others remote.

The task force said that parents would be notified a few weeks before the start of school about what phase the district is in, and will be subsequently kept in the loop with more information as case numbers and circumstances shift.

In-school safety

Current plans also include considerations for the safety of students and teachers while engaging in face-to-face instruction.

All teachers, and students in grades 3-12, will be required to wear masks during the school day. Students who ride buses must also wear masks for the duration of the trip.

Considerations will also be in place for those with medical concerns that make mask wearing difficult.

The task force said that students in grades K-2 will be recommended, but not required, to wear masks while inside of classrooms, citing research from the American Academy of Pediatrics that masks may do more harm than good for younger children due to the likelihood of them touching their masks and faces.

The age group would be required to be masked when navigating hallways or other situations that would allow for possible interaction with other students from different cohorts or age groups.

Superintendent Bryan Johnson said the school system is currently working to secure and purchase a number of masks for the district, including ones that will be provided by the Tennessee Department of Education.

Additional plans are also in the works for specific details about teacher training, schedules, lunch, special education and extracurricular activities, among other concerns, some of which are detailed in a PowerPoint made available to the public.

"There is much unknown that we still have to navigate over the course of the next month and then there'll be much to navigate even as students do ultimately return to school," he said.