Hamilton County school leaders considering multi-phase approach for reopening schools this fall

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County Schools Chief Talent Officer Keith Fogleman

Hamilton County Schools leaders tasked with reopening schools are considering a phased approach as part of the district's plan.

A reopening task force is led by the district's chief talent officer, Keith Fogleman, and retired Lt. Col. William Brooks, the district's director of junior ROTC.

The group is initially planning four stages of reopening, from the phase schools were in this spring (widespread closures and virtual learning) to phases that include blending on-campus and virtual learning and short-term closures of specific schools that experience a COVID-19 outbreak.

"This is what we think the phase will look like, and depending on what the situation looks like, we may be moving between these phases next school year," Fogleman told the Hamilton County school board during a meeting Thursday night. "What we are trying to do as we build this plan is build the planning for these scenarios to help us be able to effectively and efficiently move between these phases."

Once the district and the community as a whole have determined that the risk of reopening is minimal, all schools could be open under this third phase, Fogleman explained.

"We would need to be prepared for short-term closure procedures if we identified a building that was affected by COVID-19," he said. "Based on what we've researched at this point, we'll need to be prepared to quickly react if see a change in the environment around us in regard to the transmission of COVID-19."

Many educators and parents hope to be able to reopen schools "as usual" this August, but area school leaders have cautioned that school could look radically different.

Baseline Reopening Phases for Hamilton County Schools

— Phase 1: Risk of COVID-19 is significant. Requires significant mitigation. Potential scenarios: All schools closed, HCS Continued Learning opportunities provided for all students.— Phase 2: Risk of spreading COVID-19 is moderate. Requires moderate mitigation. Potential scenarios: Possible reduced on-campus school hours with focus on core curriculum classes. Blended HCS Continued Learning provided, portion of curriculum taught through remote learning.— Phase 3: Risk of spreading COVID-19 is minimal. Requires minimal mitigation. Potential scenarios: All schools open, with majority of curriculum deliver on campus. Short term closure procedures implemented for COVID-19 affected buildings.— Phase 4: No risk of community transmission of COVID-19. requires no mitigation. Potential scenarios: All schools open. Monitor and be prepared to react to identification of COVID-19 positive that affects staff members or students.Source: Hamilton County Schools

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told reporters during a press briefing Thursday that it is unlikely that the 2020-21 school year will be a routine one.

Lawmakers and school leaders acknowledge that next spring could be difficult for schools if there is a potential resurgence of COVID-19 as schools also battle the annual flu season.

"We aren't likely to be back to anything approaching normalcy until fall of 2021," Alexander said Thursday.

Hamilton County Schools is adhering to the most recent guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and using tools developed by the CDC to evaluate how to go about reopening, Superintendent Bryan Johnson said.

Still, board member Jenny Hill of District 6 emphasized the need for clear, data-driven benchmarks for each phase.

"As we look at the triggers for each of these phases, they are kind of vague honestly. The thing I've been looking for as a citizen as we've seen our county and our state close and reopen is, there's not been a published benchmark as far as 'when we hit this, then we do this,'" Hill said. "As I read in the paper this week, I was given hope that Tennessee has overwhelmingly hit the recommended daily testing needed each day, yet we haven't codified that yet as what we are measuring the states reopening against, so to me, there wasn't the level of confidence from the general public."

Board member Joe Smith of District 3 echoed Hill and said that making sure families understand what is happening and why will be crucial.

"The goal is to start school on time in the next school year, that's ultimately our goal and our plan, did I hear that correctly?" Smith clarified during the meeting. "I think that's important because I'm not real sure the John. Q Public has heard that clearly. ...That is our goal, our hope and what we're moving toward."

Multiple district officials also said there are still many uncertainties that prevent the task force or the district from laying out specific plans, such as the lack of guidance from the Tennessee Department of Education and the very nature of the ever-changing coronavirus pandemic.

"This is really crisis management, and crisis management doesn't just end on July 31," board member Tiffanie Robinson of District 4 said. "This is something this group is going to be narrowing in on for a longer period of time."

Johnson said he is hoping to have recommendations from the task force - which will eventually include health professionals, parents, teachers, elected leaders and other community members - by the end of June, but the situation will likely remain fluid.

The task force also hopes to survey the community and be able to share a preliminary operating plan for the school year with the public in early July.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.