As students and teachers celebrate the last official days of an unprecedented school year, marred by school closures and the challenges of virtual learning, education leaders are already grappling with what school might look like for thousands of Tennessee students in the fall.
When and if schools do physically reopen is still a debate nationally. As President Donald Trump encourages schools to reopen this fall, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and the nation's top medical expert during the coronavirus pandemic, cautioned leaders against moving too quickly.
With Gov. Bill Lee and local governments' efforts to reopen the state this month, most Tennessee school districts are planning for school to take place this fall, but many are also planning for multiple scenarios or even phases and most say that school will look very different.
'Systems will be transformed forever'
Staggered lunch times, social-distanced classrooms with desks spaced 6 feet apart, temperature checks, face masks — the very logistics of running a school building this fall will be a challenge, local district leaders say.
"Every minute of every day will have to be laid out with the understanding of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations," said Mark Griffith, director of Marion County Schools. "It's a whole new world."
Schedules, staffing and supplies are all expected to be hurdles for both large, urban school districts such as Hamilton County and the small, rural ones that surround Chattanooga.
Marion County Schools has put together a re-entry task force, similar to Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson's own School Reopening Task Force, to bring together district officials and medical professionals, health department officials and others to help think through scenarios.
COVID-19 has caused district leaders to "step back and really evaluate the work that [they] do," Johnson said at a news conference Tuesday. His task force will focus on four main priorities: minimizing risks to public health, optimizing operational readiness, recognizing school's importance to the community, and most fundamentally, addressing impacts on student learning and well-being.
"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 at the time. "Candidly, I think many systems will be transformed forever, and we will be one of those."
Griffith said members of his team recently set up a classroom with desks spaced 6 feet apart per current CDC guidelines to see how that might work this fall.
"We actually set up a normal classroom in a 6-feet social distancing arena to see what that would look like and it's going to have to be a smaller class size, so if you have a class with 30 students in it, that might mean splitting it into two classes of 15," Griffith said. "Scheduling could be a nightmare."
Whether districts are dealing with 3,000 or 45,000 students, logistics such as entry points into buildings and whether or not students should wear face coverings are also up in the air.
Hamilton County operates almost 200 bus routes transporting thousands of students — so should students have their temperatures taken before they get on the bus and who would do that, Johnson asked rhetorically at a news conference Tuesday. That could mean extra staffing.
In Cleveland, Tennessee, district officials are thinking through whether high school students should eat in their classrooms this fall and whether students or teachers should be the ones changing rooms each period.
"At the high school we're feeding 1,800 students in a day over an hour-and-a-half time span. That's a lot of food, a lot of people, a lot of students in a crowded place, so how could you feed students in their classrooms? How do you bring the food to them?" said Russell Dyer, director of Cleveland City Schools. "What about classroom transitions, transportation those are the kind of decisions that have to be made over the summer that really affect the way people think about reopening."
Fragile students and teachers
Dyer is trying to be realistic about what types of scenarios his own team considers when thinking about the 2020-21 academic school year.
"What we all hope is school comes back as normal and the academic calendar can go as normal," he told the Times Free Press. "We also have to be very realistic. The COVID situation will fluctuate and we'll have to adjust."
He believes Cleveland City Schools might have to consider a phased approach to bringing kids back to school, whether through staggering students at different times throughout the day or keeping some students engaged through virtual learning while others are back in the physical classroom.
"I could see a phased approach with a phase one scenario where you have a certain percentage of students come each day, a certain percentage for a certain amount of time and you phase in more students as it feels safe to do so," Dyer said.
Johnson also hinted that Hamilton County Schools plans to increase the district's virtual learning offerings and potentially allowing parents to opt in or out of physically sending their children back to school — something previously possible, but usually limited to students with extremely specific needs or situations.
"We know we have fragile students and teachers, and frankly we have parents who are concerned about sending students to school in August," Johnson said.
Districts might prioritize certain groups of students, such as younger grades where instruction can be harder to deliver virtually, or exceptional education students who are already typically in smaller group settings and sometimes need hands-on, face-to-face interaction.
Getting students back to hands-on classes such as career and technical education (CTE) that Cleveland High and many schools in the region are known for might also be a priority.
"When you think about our CTE courses, most of that is hands-on — it's working in small groups, it's putting things together. That's hard to do virtually," Dyer said. "There's ways you can simulate that type of learning but there's nothing like being around a dummy and practicing CPR with your classmates in your health science classes The faster that we can get back and do it safely and orderly, the better we're all going to be."
Both Hamilton County and Cleveland City school leaders are also concerned about academic gaps widening among students performing below grade level the longer they are out of the schoolhouse, as well as the impact that not being surrounded by teachers and peers can have on English language learners who typically learn language skills through immersion.
Dyer said about 80-85% of Cleveland students have stayed engaged since schools closed in March thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but it has been a struggle to reach that other 15% of students.
"That's the part where it worries me in the fall those students are going to be behind other kids and we are going to have to work really hard to catch them up," he said.
Cleveland City Schools plans to start with remediation, or going over what those students might have missed, but he isn't sure whether the district will be able to offer in-person support this summer. Hamilton County Schools is in the same place.
Johnson and his team have said they plan to use some of the school system's share of federal coronavirus relief funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, for summer programs for its most-at-risk students as well, but districts are also debating using those funds to ensure students have enough laptops or technology devices in case schools are forced to close again.
Finding — and funding — supplies
As for supplies, Griffith notes that supplies seemingly as simple as face masks, which the CDC now recommends for children over the age of 2, could be difficult to get in time for August.
As many manufacturers go into overdrive to produce personal protective equipment, or PPE, like face masks, N95 respirators and gloves to meet the ever-increasing demand, school districts will have to compete with hospitals, first responders and other businesses that are beginning to reopen.
"The cost of soap, putting in hand-sanitizer stations across the buildings, PPE our health services director has done a great job of looking for supplies to go ahead and restock, but it's also detrimental to budgets as well," Griffith said. "We have a meeting set up next week with our custodial supplier just trying to see if we can get access to wipes."
Regardless of when schools finally reopen, district leaders agree that they will look different.
Griffith said he is honest with the parents and community members who are peppering him with questions about what school is going to look like this fall.
"First and foremost, what I've always said is safety is most important for our kids. We have no crystal ball. It's going to be different, and it's going to be an inconvenience to some extent," he said.