This coming week, Hamilton County Schools will begin an unintentional experiment as the district opens 25 summer program sites.
Staff of the school-age child care programs at each site will be some of the first district employees to physically be face-to-face with students since schools closed in March amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They will be the first to attempt to implement the most recent public health guidance while engaging with young students for hours every day.
"It is like a mini-testing site," said Justin Robertson, chief operations officer for the district. "Hopefully how these programs go will provide us some insight that we can take when thinking about the beginning of the year in August."
Procedures such as extra handwashing and social distancing might be easier on the smaller scale of the summer program, Robertson cautioned. Many of the sites represent less than 3% of a school's typical population. It's easier to spread out 25 students in a gym than 100, he said.
Only about 336 students are registered to show up when the programs open on Monday, June 1 — just over half of the capacity of 625 students this year.
The district first announced that it would still hold its in-person programs this summer in April, and district officials weren't sure what the demand would be or whether parents would be ready to send their children out into the community.
In previous years, the district has operated around 14 sites each summer with as many as 150 or more students in attendance for up to 10 hours a day while their parents are at work.
Cathy Loftis, manager of school-age child care for Hamilton County Schools, said she thinks that staff and students are excited to see each other in person again, but she anticipates that there will be challenges.
"This has been harder on [students] than anyone else. I've worked for child care for 30 years, and I'm probably just as excited because we get to see kids again," Loftis said. "But there's also a fear that comes with it. We want to provide [students] the very best and the safest environments that we can, and we don't want to have any mistakes there. We will face each day as a challenge."
What parents and students can expect
When students arrive or are picked up at each site, scattered at elementary schools across the county this summer, all check-in and check-out procedures will happen outside, Loftis explained.
Students can expect to have their temperatures taken each day, and staff will follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines on whether to allow a student who might be sick to attend that day.
Students will also be encouraged to wear face masks if possible, but won't be required to after the Hamilton County school board debated at a recent board meeting the practicality of requiring students to wear them.
Inside the schools, students will have designated areas set up for them. Program staff were busy Friday cleaning rooms and setting up centers where students can rotate throughout the day.
Students will be kept in smaller groups at sites with closer to 25 students, but some sites like Normal Park Lower School or Battle Academy had less than half of that number registered as of Friday.
"We will have designated centers or areas set up for them at safe distances from each other," Loftis said. "We will be trying to maintain that six-foot social distancing recommendation."
Water fountains will be off limits for students — instead they will be required to bring their own refillable water bottles from home that staff will refill throughout the day.
What they can bring from home is also limited. In the past students could bring a favorite toy or item, but this year they are limited to one personal device.
Children will bring their own lunches.
Staff are also brainstorming extra activities for students this year. Previously, groups would take field trips at least one day a week to places like the Chattanooga Zoo or the Tennessee Aquarium, and the programs might bring in groups or guest speakers for a day. Because of the coronavirus, these options aren't available this year.
"We are going to try and fill that time with hands-on activities like arts and crafts, some science experiments and multiple STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) instead," Loftis said.
Robertson also acknowledged that district officials are concerned about the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Hamilton County.
Growth in cases over the past four weeks has landed Chattanooga in the top 5 places on The New York Times list of regions with the steepest growth in COVID-19 cases. Many of those cases have been clustered in specific areas of the county — areas that also house many of the district's minority students from low-income homes.
Robertson said the district does have contingency plans in case a student or staff member gets exposed to, or eventually tests positive for, COVID-19, and will be monitoring local data and public health guidance regularly.
Other than Battle Academy, there aren't any sites located at some of the schools in Hamilton County's most deeply affected areas, like East Lake and Alton Park.
"We tried to open Barger Academy, but we don't have any other sites in the midtown community, and since we don't, that's helpful, but we're definitely continuing to keep an eye on situations," Robertson said. "I'm really proud of the work that the school-age child care staff has done. I feel like they are very well prepared."