Staff photo by Tim Barber / Hamilton County Schools superintendent Dr. Brian Johnson speaks during a previous Hamilton County school board meeting.

Frustration from parents over online education came to a head at the Hamilton County Board of Education meeting Thursday night, but the board left any decision about going back into classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic to the discretion of Superintendent Bryan Johnson.

During the discussion period for community members before the board discussion, parent Lisa Willard said she represented many families and community members when she offered various reasons including the social, academic and health concerns of students as to why the district needs to prioritize reopening schools to in-person instruction.

She also said while they take COVID-19 precautions seriously, they believe that there are enough procedures in place to mitigate the spread of the virus.

"Our children are suffering academically. The learning is substandard than what would be received in person. A reading teacher cannot effectively monitor fluency and a math teacher cannot effectively provide instant feedback to catch the early errors that affect problem solving," she said. "We request that you reopen our schools so we can have the environment that is best for our families and our children."

The board went into the meeting with three options to consider.

The first would keep the current plan, which rotates among different phases of online or in-person school based on a set of benchmarks using data about transmission and infections in the community and in the schools.

The second plan would adjust the benchmarks to allow more in-person learning despite the ongoing spread of the coronavirus.

The third would gradually phase all students into in-person learning regardless of case data.

After around two hours of spirited debate, the board chose none of those. Members voted unanimously on a late-drafted resolution by Chairman Joe Wingate of District 7 to allow Johnson and his school reopening task force to reevaluate the old plan and make decisions on reopening going forward.

"What that means, again, is that Dr. Johnson and his staff will be asked to, again, pursue options as to how we can safely open school. Now, that doesn't mean it happens on Monday; their recommendation might be that it happens four weeks from now," Wingate said after reading off the resolution.

"The resolution says we will leave it to him to make that decision. They have heard our voice, that we want schools open as quickly, as reasonably and as safely as possible. And we are going to defer to their inundation in the data and the knowledge and the consultation of medical personnel as they do daily."

Students have been receiving virtual instruction since the start of the spring semester due to a surge in virus cases following Thanksgiving, the longest stint of all virtual learning the district has seen since school started in August.

For weeks the rolling five-day average of cases in Hamilton County was above 3,680, or 1.0% of the population, the current limit of the pre-established data tracker. As of Thursday the percentage was 0.94% which is normally designated as Phase 1, or the phase with the least in-person education.

Phases are generally updated each Tuesday, and after the resolution was approved Johnson said that students would remain in remote learning for next week, the original decision conveyed to families earlier in the week.

While schools will be closed to in-person learning for at least one more week, Johnson and the district's medical team relayed that active cases are decreasing and if the trend continues, students will likely be back in person in some capacity in the near future.

"We'll continue to work beginning tomorrow to see where the areas are around the edges [of the current plan] where we need to tweak," Johnson said, acknowledging the board brought up many good points of feedback from constituents that will be kept in mind during further planning.

According to the agenda, the vote to evaluate options for returning students to the classroom was requested from board members Tucker McClendon of District 8, Joe Smith of District 3 and Rhonda Thurman of District 1.

The Thursday gathering followed a Tuesday meeting of some of the board members with members of the district's COVID-19 task force to look into what options they might have for reopening.

Early in the meeting on Thursday, McClendon brought a measure to the table that would have combined the two options of altering the phase tracker and moving kids back to in-person learning as soon as possible, but this motion was tabled by a second motion brought by Jenny Hill of District 6 that was passed 5-4.

The county had previously updated the phase tracker before the start of the second semester, but the new guide had yet to be used due to the case surge.

The plan approved in December would place students in kindergarten through third grade with two days of in-person instruction a week in Phase 1 and 4 days of in-person learning in Phase 2. Older students would remain in remote learning for Phase 1 and in in-person learning 2 days a week in Phase 2.

Since school went back into session in August, the district has reported 1,271 student cases and 645 staff cases.

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