Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / The Rev. Dr. William T. Ladd, III, helps Jeffrey Cheeks, 7, with his school work at First Baptist Church in Chattanooga on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

As the first full semester of instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic draws to an end, Hamilton County Schools administrators say it was a better-than-expected first few months of the school year, while they anticipate a more difficult semester to come.

When the district's coronavirus reopening plan rolled out in August, using information on community spread to assign students to fully remote, hybrid and fully in-person instruction, there was very little historical data for guidance, school system Superintendent Bryan Johnson said.

But overall, months of planning yielded a semester that proceeded with few large complications, with most students remaining in five days of face-to-face instruction per week for a majority of the four months.

"When we started in August Bryan and I had these conversations that we were like, 'Fingers crossed that we can make it to first quarter,'" said Nakia Towns, deputy superintendent. "I really think looking back we exceeded our expectations in terms of where we started, not knowing how this would all turn out."

According to Johnson, around 40 of the district's schools never had to impose temporary at-home learning periods as a result of a case cluster, something Jennifer Bronson, leader of the district's COVID-19 response, and Chief Schools Officer Neelie Parker said was made possible through mask-wearing, social distancing and other mitigation strategies, all things that students caught onto quickly.

Districtwide shifts to remote or hybrid learning only occurred towards the end of the semester, as community cases surged around Thanksgiving.

And as January approaches, the new semester presents challenges of its own.

Hamilton County Schools is currently anticipating almost 8,000 students who opted for total remote schooling for the fall to pivot to in-person learning in the spring.

Over the course of the semester, around 65% of students and their families chose the district's phased in-person instruction, a number that will likely jump to 79.9%, or 33,697 students, in January, according to Bronson. Only about 8,472 students will remain in the virtual school, known as HCS@Home.

The larger in-person student numbers, while ideal from many educational standpoints, will bring more COVID-19 related operational concerns to schools across the district.

"If there are more students, it will make [social distancing] more difficult," Johnson said. "And so we've just got to continue to figure out how to mitigate as well as we possibly can and support teachers with thinking through how they can create distance opportunities."

These opportunities include things such as removing the bell signaling class transitions in favor of alternating release times to lessen the number of students in hallways at any given moment and removing extraneous furniture from classrooms when possible. They will also include ways to reorient students who haven't been in physical school since March.

Johnson believes the sizable shift from online to in-person may have less to do with faults in the online learning systems and more with the difficulty guardians face with managing students at home coupled with more knowledge about the virus and a growing trust in the district's efforts to avoid COVID-19 spread.

"Parents are coming to the realization that the job of a teacher is amazing nothing replaces a good teacher," he said, while also commenting on his own experience as a parent of a third grader. "I also think people are beginning to really see that the school system has some really great mitigation strategies."

The district has also been following other trends to inform about best strategies for specific age groups for the new semester, such as the fact that in general, lower grade students appear to benefit more from in-person, full-time learning and appear to spread the virus less.

On the contrary, many older high school students seem to be performing well academically with a more hybrid approach and appear to spread the virus more easily.

"We're actively looking at really trying to be more responsive to the individual needs of students," Johnson said.

And in addition to more students physically in a classroom, Hamilton County, along with much of the country, is also currently facing a surge in cases of COVID-19, a trend expected to go well into the new year with the holiday season bringing people into close quarters.

"Opening in August may have been easier than what it's going to be open in January because we have every indication that the case count is going to be higher in January than it was in August," Johnson said. "That's why we're trying to turn every stone and figure this really tough situation out."

Since August, the system has seen a total of 896 student cases and 236 student cases.

Despite new challenges, the district said it's better positioned now after learning from the ups and downs of the first semester.

From now on, rather than update learning phases every two to three weeks, this will be done as frequently as once a week as transitioning between phases was easier than anticipated for many teachers and parents, according to the district's surveys.

Other tweaks will be made in the reliance on certain efforts such as surface cleaning as more information becomes available about how exactly the virus spreads.

There are still a number of concerns to be addressed in the new semester about attendance records for online school, the previously present achievement gap and about retention and progression of learned information following the large disruptions in March at the start of the pandemic and continuing into the school year.

While the state has waived most mandated standardized testing, the district will still be using in-house testing benchmarks to help keep students on track and identify those who may have fallen behind.

"At the end of the day, if we thought that remote learning was a perfect substitute for in-person learning.there would be no questions; we would put health and safety at the top and we would do all remote learning for all students," Towns said. "But we know that's not true. We know there are so many equity challenges."

As the district looks to the future with vaccine distribution on the horizon, slated to be a personal choice for students and teachers according to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, Johnson said that his continued commitment to the community is to allow schools to do what they do best — educate students — while avoiding being a center of virus spread as the pandemic continues into the new year.

"Our focus remains making sure that all of our students are positioned to be future-ready and to provide them with the skills and the support and the academics [and the] intentionality necessary to be successful," he said.

"[And this semester] our goal has been to not to be the source of COVID and not to be a place where it spreads and to do everything we can to mitigate against it as intentionally as possible. So that's kind of how we'll continue to approach this."

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