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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Superintendent Bryan Johnson, center, speaks during a press conference announcing the formation of a task force in the Hamilton County Schools board room on Tuesday, May 12, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The task force is being formed to begin plans and preparation to reopen schools this fall.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson said a "number of things" are on the table for reopening schools this fall in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson announced Monday the formation of a task force to prepare and recommend plans to him for the district's reopening in August. Those plans could include multiple options for students, including whether they physically return to school campuses or not, and will also take into consideration the nuances of how schools operate.

Parents will also have options to continue virtual or distance learning instead of sending their children back to school, the superintendent confirmed.

"COVID-19 has caused us all to step back and really evaluate the work that we do and we anticipate August to be no different," Johnson said during a press conference Tuesday. "We anticipate August to look very different, not just for our district but for districts around the state."

The task force will be headed by the district's Chief Talent Officer Keith Fogleman and retired Lt. Col. William Brooks, the district's director of JROTC, and will focus on four priorities when considering when and how to reopen schools: minimizing risks to public health, addressing impacts on student learning and well-being, recognizing schools' importance to the community and optimizing operational readiness.

"What has hit us is frankly how daunting a task it will be and all the nuance and intricacies that should be under consideration for a district of our size and how we should be planning strategically for the safe reopening of our district," Johnson said.

Hamilton County schools have been closed since March 16, even prior to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee recommended school districts statewide stay closed for the remainder of the academic year.

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Task force outline for reopening

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In that time, Fogleman said, district leaders have realized how important schools are for the community.

"Our schools provide safety, stability, we feed students and we've continued to do that," Fogleman said. "One of the things we believe is there are lessons learned from these past two months as we move forward with plans to reopen schools."

Though Brooks emphasized that the task is to get students and teachers back into brick and mortar schools, district leaders acknowledged that there could be a variety of potential scenarios come August.

"This is by no means a claim that in August everybody will be coming back and everybody will be fine," Johnson said. "We know we have fragile students and teachers, and frankly we have parents who are concerned about sending students to school in August."

The district is already actively looking at adding more virtual learning options for students, as well as how high-risk employees could be shifted to support virtual learning to protect them as well, Johnson said.

"We have a level of obligation to provide as many options as we possibly can," he said.

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Hamilton County Schools planning for reopening

Schools will also be grappling with some of the things child care providers are already wrestling with as they reopen this week, such as how to follow guidelines from local and state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and enforcing social distancing guidelines, especially among younger children, with the staff and supplies on hand.

Even operating buses and if the district needs to reduce the number of students on each bus or where or when students should have their temperatures checked before entering school buildings are examples of the operational nuances the district has to consider, Johnson said.

"From an academic standpoint, there's no secret to how it has impacted operations, to lunches and buses, but what it has done is it's forced [school] systems to think differently about how we deliver education," Johnson said. "Candidly, I think many systems will be transformed forever, and we will be one of those."

The task force is currently expected to make recommendations to district leadership by the end of June so that they can be communicated to parents and students in July, before the school year is scheduled to begin.

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

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