Starting Monday, Walker County Schools students and staff will shift to a new hybrid instructional model that calls for four days of in-person class each week.
Under the new schedule, Superintendent Damon Raines said, students will be in face-to-face classes with their teachers on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
Wednesday will remain a hybrid day of at-home learning for students and at-home work for staff. Keeping the schools empty on Wednesdays, he said, will allow more time for teacher planning, professional development, cleaning and the disinfecting of school buildings and classrooms.
The new schedule will start Monday and continue after students return to school from their scheduled fall break on Monday, Oct. 18.
Raines said the school district will reassess its COVID-19 data on Wednesday, Oct. 20, to determine whether any spikes in cases or quarantines are evident after fall break.
Based on the data, the district will make its decision about whether to continue at-home learning on a hybrid basis or bring students back for regular in-person classes.
"Our goal remains to return to five-day, in-person instruction as quickly and safely as possible," Raines said.
Monday's shift to a new hybrid schedule comes on the heels of a Walker County School Board meeting earlier this month in which dozens of parents showed up to argue for more in-person instructional time for their students.
At the time, students were attending school for face-to-face class just two days a week, something parents at the meeting argued was hard on both their children and themselves. They said finding child care was difficult and expensive and argued that keeping their jobs was nearly impossible at times when they were forced to take days off from work to be home with their children.
Walker County Schools parent Linda Parker said she knew of at least two parents who lost their jobs because they had to keep staying home from work.
"I know people are going to say the school isn't a babysitting service, and it's not," Parker said after the meeting. "But with things as hard as they are right now on everybody, it's not right to put parents in a position to pick between their kid and their job. We all know people are struggling, and I just feel like they should be in class if it's safe for them to be there."
Clay Fuller, a one-time congressional candidate in the area, spoke on behalf of parents at the meeting. He questioned the reasoning behind switching students to a hybrid schedule, noting that other nearby school districts and systems were electing to either take students fully virtual for learning or keep them in in-person classes.
Choosing one over the other would be better, he argued, because the ever-changing nature of the school schedule in Walker County has been particularly hard on students.
"We received a call that we were switching to a hybrid model and we had to explain to my 10-year-old daughter that's in fifth grade what that was," he said. "She burst into tears."
Melinda Herman said her child had a similar reaction to learning earlier this school year that in-person classes would just be two days a week. Upon learning that there would be four days of in-person class starting Monday, she said her daughter was "thrilled."
"They want to be in school with their friends," Herman said. "I know we have to care about their health. I'm a mom, so yeah, I get that, and that's what I want us to do. But it's easy for people who might not have kids to forget that they need to be around other people their age. They miss being in school. My daughter's in fourth grade. She's missed out on so much because of this and, you know, it's hard to make friends when you don't see anybody."
Superintendent Raines said he knows that hybrid learning isn't particularly popular with parents and acknowledged that it's "not the best model," but said the district had to make decisions with the health and welfare of students in mind.
According to information presented at a recent Walker County Schools community meeting, the district only implemented a hybrid instructional model for three weeks last school year, with each student receiving 161 days of in-person learning and nine virtual learning days.
District officials at the meeting said the instructional models put in place so far this year will provide students with "25 in-person learning days and 21 at-home learning days" if they are able to return to face-to-face instruction after Oct. 20.
Asked why the district appeared to favor at-home learning more this year than last, officials pointed to the sharp increase in the number of student cases of COVID-19 this school year.
From August 2020 to May 2021, 516 student COVID-19 cases were reported to the district, they said. From Aug. 11 to Sept. 22 of this year, there have been 601 student cases. Looking at the number of total cases reported in both years, including teacher and staff cases, they said 781 were reported during the 2020-2021 school year. From Aug. 11 to Sept. 22 this school year, 733 total cases were reported.
"We want to get kids back in school just as much as anybody else," Raines said. "We just have to do that safely, and that's why we're monitoring things the way we are."
Contact Kelcey Caulder at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.