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In an effort to provide families with additional information ahead of Wednesday's deadline for parents to choose which back-to-school option is best for their children, the Chattanooga Times Free Press hosted a live question-and-answer session on Monday with representatives from Hamilton County Schools.

The Times Free Press asked pre-submitted and live questions from families during the streamed event on Facebook and Zoom to Breckan Duckworth, who is supervising the virtual HCS at Home option, and Lt. Col. Bill Brooks, co-chair of the HCS Reopening Schools Task Force.

Families will have three choices for the 2020-2021 school year:

— Sending children to school with a four-phased COVID-19 response model that takes health department and other data into account and educates children using a range of options from all-online schooling to full-service in-person learning at school sites.

— HCS at Home, a complete remote option that leaves students enrolled in their current schools and learning along with those who choose to learn in person.

— Hamilton County Virtual School, a more independent and self-paced remote option.

Q: There have been some mixed messages coming from the federal, state and local government levels about the severity of the coronavirus. How are you making decisions in Hamilton County Schools, and what expertise are you looking to to decide those phases?

Brooks said that the task force has and will continue to seek guidance from a variety of official sources.

"We put a group of experts together in every area: principals and teachers from every level, elementary, middle and high school; medical doctors and health professionals from the health department; students and parents from all our learning communities," he said.

Q: If school was going to start next Monday, what phase would we be in now based on that expertise, and what would school look like?

Brooks said that with the current county data schools would start on Phase 2, with students in a physical classroom two days a week and online for three.

"If you had asked me two weeks ago, without even hesitating I would have said Phase 3 at five days a week," he said. "But the way we're trending now, I was thinking more of Phase 2."

Duckworth also clarified that when in a hybrid learning phase, students would still have five full days of instruction.

"If we're in Phase 2 and you're traveling or going to school and in the building for two days, they're still receiving five days of new learning," Duckworth said. "So we're still having five academic days within the week. However, three of those will be remote, so your child will be at home learning, similar to the environment of HCS at Home."

Q: What attributes or characteristics of your child should you be taking into consideration when going through these three options?

According to Duckworth, the first question parents should ask is if they feel comfortable with their child going to a physical building at all this school year, and if not, families should look to the two online options.

HCS at Home allows students to remain enrolled in their current school while taking all remote classes. This option provides the most teacher support to those who wish to remain online.

"With HCS at Home, your child is still going to receive the same support of their teacher just like they would if they were going into the building," Duckworth said. "They'll have times where they meet with their teacher in small group instruction; they may have some one-on-one check-ins with their teacher. We really see HCS at Home as, it is your school, but it's happening at home."

Hamilton County Virtual School pulls a student out of standard school and provides remote, module-based instruction at a more individualized pace. Duckworth also said this option may require a more hands-on approach from parents.

"They can kind of pace themselves, get their work done at their own pace and be able to really complete a lot of grade-level material without much support from a teacher," she said.

Q: If you do HCS at Home, is it still in real-time or is it kind of asynchronous or not all in real-time?

Duckworth said that HCS at Home will be a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning. Sometimes students will have live instruction, other times they may have an individual assignment or meet on Zoom for group instruction.

"They will definitely be making touch points with their teacher that week through small group instruction, one-on-one check-ins, or some time where the teacher is live with students," Duckworth said.

One of the major differences between HCS at Home and Hamilton County Virtual School is that virtual school will not have times where they are live with a teacher.

"We may have some schools that do that a little bit more than others, because if you're enrolling in HCS at Home, and you have a child that attends East Ridge Middle, then it is really East Ridge Middle School at home. "

With HCS at Home, students are expected to be accessible during normal school hours and will be provided a schedule.

"It's gonna look different on different days, but what we're asking is that your child's available for learning for the same hours that the school is operating," Duckworth said.

Q: Is there a way to, if cases are getting worse, or the situation gets worse, can you then opt to go to virtual and vice versa or how does that work if you choose an option then you end up not being pleased with that option?

Students who commit to either online option must remain with their choice for at least a semester. Those who choose the partially in-person hybrid system will have the option to go completely remote at any time.

Families will simply have to call the school to change to a new instruction method as PowerSchool, the district's online portal, will only be open for choices until July 22.

"That's really to protect our students and our teachers," Duckworth said. "We want to make sure that their schedules aren't changing constantly but we do understand that this health issue is changing constantly so we want to make sure you have an option to stay home.

"But we don't want teachers to constantly be struggling between who is coming into the building and who is not, and it helps keep your child on a better pace for their curriculum throughout the semester."

Q: Are all students required to have masks? What about faculty and staff? If a student doesn't wear a mask, what are the repercussions that come with that?

In Phases 2 and 3, Brooks said that all students and employees will be required to wear a mask. Exceptions arise for those in grades K-2, who are asked, but not required, and for those with health concerns that will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

He also said that enforcement will be left to the discipline plans of each principal.

"[Exceptions] would be a one-on-one case based on a student's physical needs," he said. "But the bottom line is, we expect every student to wear a face covering."

Q: If a student starts to show symptoms, what does that look like for parents who now, they have to quarantine for two weeks? How will the school handle that, you know, with sick days or absences and you know how could they continue learning at home too if they'd like to?

Brooks said that there is still work to be done in finalizing the district's plans for illnesses that arise.

"There's so many different scenarios surrounding teachers getting sick, student getting sick, or [having] symptoms," he said. "That's one area that we're still working through because we know that there will be some cases where illnesses will creep in whether it's related to COVID or not."

Duckworth also said that the state has provided more leniency in terms of attendance for the upcoming school year, although there will be more accountability than when schools moved online in March.

"This upcoming school year we will have to take attendance for our students every single day," she said. "However, our students who may opt for Option 1, and then they get sick, we have been given the guidance from the state that we could count them as present if they're completing their work at home and participating in basically an HCS at Home or the remote learning environment for that day."

Q: If there is a COVID case in the building, does the school have to close and what are those policies?

If there is a positive case detected at a school, that school would close for a minimum of 48 to 72 hours, Brooks said, to give time for contact tracing and high-level disinfecting.

During these time periods, Duckworth said, students would transition temporarily to a remote learning environment.

Q: Who will be in charge of cleaning and sanitizing during the school year?

According to Brooks, the county has hired additional custodial staff for each school to keep up with the demand.

"There'll be a bigger presence in our schools, in terms of custodians and people who will be helping in terms of the health perspective," he said. "For example, last year you may not have seen people walking around, you know disinfecting high-touch areas like doorknobs, but you'll see that this year. So that will require additional people to do additional work."

Q: What will happen if there is a situation that a child needs to take a bus to school?

Brooks said that all students and drivers will be required to wear masks on buses and social distancing will be enforced, including assigned seats and family members being asked to sit together.

"A lot of things are still being thought through, but we've already have a lot of situations that we're war gaming," he said.

Q: Will the school district need more buses, or do you feel like with fewer children going to school physically that we could handle it with a fleet that we already have?

"I think by July 22, we will have a very good idea because then we will know the numbers on some of the polls [and] surveys we've conducted," Brooks said. "If that plays out to be accurate, we will not need additional buses. We will also be encouraging parents, when they can, to drive students to school."

Q: What happens if you do not select an option by the July 22 deadline?

Families who do not select an option by July 22 will be placed in the four-phase hybrid instruction model by default.

"If you do not select an option, you're automatically enrolling your child to come to the building in some capacity," Duckworth said.

Q: If parents choose the hybrid model, what happens in a multi-child household? Will children in the same family have the same days in school while in Phase 2 or 3?

Brooks said that the district is working hard to make sure that families that choose in-person hybrid instruction are able to have all children in one household in school on the same days.

"If, you know, the first week of school we realized that if we get the thing wrong, we can fix it," Brooks said. "If we find out that we've got your child in A day and a [another on a] B day [schedule] we'll make that reversal and make sure that it's accommodating to the parents."

Q: Does a family have a choice between which set of two days their children will be in school during Phase 2 and 3?

"That's something that we will probably have to consider, on a case-by-case basis," Brooks said, "because there's a lot of planning going into this [and] a lot of moving pieces."

Q: How often will phases be updated?

According to Brooks, updates on how county data is trending will be available each day and notifications about phases will be made on at least a weekly basis depending on guidance from the Hamilton County Health Department.

"We are going to try to update, at least on a weekly basis, because we know that parents must plan as well," he said.

Q: Are you looking to other districts within the state for comparisons or guidance?

"We actually are using a model that we saw for Williamson County and Sumner County, and it's very similar," Brooks said. "However, I will tell you that Hamilton County has taken a more conservative approach in comparison to those other counties. We think that our approach has been at the highest level of safety."

Q: What is the district doing in terms of technology for students?

According to Duckworth, when parents go to sign their students up for either hybrid or online learning, questions will be asked about each family's accessibility to devices and Wi-Fi.

The district is working on supplying students with personal devices and is working with EPB to provide connectivity solutions to families without an internet connection.

"We're working to make sure that we get devices out to all of our students, prioritizing our grades 3 through 12 students," Duckworth said.

Q: If students choose to study at home, will they still be able to participate in extracurricular activities like band or sports?

As students who choose HCS at Home are still enrolled in their local school, they are eligible to participate in extracurricular activities, although many sports are currently still suspended due to the pandemic.

School-specific activities will not be available to those who choose Hamilton County Virtual School.

The district is asking all families to remember to log into PowerSchool to choose what choice may be best for their students by Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. Those with kindergartners are asked to call their schools to elect their choice as new registrations are not yet logged in the online system.

More information and frequently asked questions can also be found here.

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