Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Second-grade teacher Jennifer Smith prepares individual math manipulative bags for her students at Rivermont Elementary on Thursday, July 30, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Rivermont Elementary School teacher Jennifer Smith was inside her classroom Thursday afternoon putting together individual math manipulative bags for her students that included blocks, base-10 rods and counters.

The 25-year-old second grade teacher is expecting 20 students this upcoming school year — teaching 10 per day using the school's likely A/B scheduling.

"I set my classroom up and then I cleaned everything dusted everything off," Smith said. "We have a sanitizing station with all the cleaning materials and Germ-X, so definitely safety and instruction are both the same right now."

Like classrooms all over the world, there was an on-campus learning pause for Hamilton County Schools due to the coronavirus.

Since March 12, the school district has closed its doors for in-person instruction and is now in talks about how to reopen. The district has a phased plan ranging from all-online to all-in-person schooling, with hybrid models in between, depending on coronavirus data. According to the district's website, as of July 31, the case numbers "would put us in Phase 3 if schools were open today." Phase 3 is one of the hybrid models.

Superintendent Bryan Johnson said the district put together a reopening plan "working with health providers, public health officials, teachers, parents, and students that focuses on the public health of our community to return to school as safely as possible for families that choose the on-campus option."

The district is expected to have close to last year's enrollment total — around 44,000 students — for the 2020-21 school year. About 3,419 teachers are expected to return this school year.

The first day of school is Aug. 12.

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High costs, high stakes: Hamilton County Schools prepare for return to classrooms

Go in or not

East Ridge Middle School teacher Aaron Fowles said he is ready to to get back to campus.

"I have the unpopular opinion that I think schools do have to provide an in-person option for parents," he said. "People who live in diverse communities have diverse responsibilities. Some people just have to go to work."

Soddy Elementary School teacher Sarah Leeseberg taught in a summer catch-up program and will be going back to school for in-person teaching this school year.

The mother of a Hamilton County 10th grader added that when she and other teachers were working on their summer lesson plans, they laid out two versions: one with adjusted in-person learning (such as social distancing) and one with the same content but involving the adaptation to virtual learning.

"If we were doing a game that involved dice, we also had to include a link to a virtual dice roller," Leeseberg aid. "If we did something with cards that we would cut out and kids would use, we would also find a randomizer or something that generated numbers."

Orchard Knob Middle School teacher Katie Mara said she, too, will be on campus this year.

"I love my students. I want to be at school with them even though I'm scared about what could happen with us all together," she said. "If my students are in the building I will be there, too."

While Fowles, Leeseberg and Mara are considering going back to campus, some are not so sure.

Leeseberg said she knows two teachers who are considering not going back to campus and teaching virtually due to underlying conditions of family members.

Tim Hensley, the district's communications officer, said Hamilton County Schools is aware of some teachers and staff not wanting to return to campus and officials "have communicated regularly with staff to understand those in need of accommodations due to health concerns."

"The district is working with each staff member individually to place staff in the most effective position to teach in line with individual health concerns and risk factors. More students opting for HCS at Home and HCS Virtual School will allow more teachers to teach remotely," Hensley said.

Money talk

The school board and the Hamilton County Commission approved the $418 million fiscal year 2021 budget that eliminated step increases — or pay — for teachers.

The FY21 budget doesn't include anything COVID-19 related, Hensley said.

"We will have to spend about $3 million for [personal protective equipment] and cleaning that is currently not budgeted," he said. "But we expect to get more federal funding for COVID response to cover those items."

This upcoming school year, the district added a cleaning service specifically for cleaning during the day. The crew is expected to clean high-traffic areas three times a day.

Johnson told the Times Free Press three words the district shared during this unprecedented season are grace, choice, and fluidity.

"We hope that our community shows and gives us grace, and we do the same in return. We are dealing with a fluid situation as cases and new information arise and are shared almost daily," Johnson said.

"These are challenging times for school districts and communities across the country, and our school board, administrators, teachers and staff have worked relentlessly this summer to provide learning opportunities that will continue the progress of our children, school district and community."

Contact Monique Brand at