By MARINA WATERS
For the first time since last school year, Washington County will return all of its students to the classroom.
On Thursday, Oct. 1, the Washington County Board of Education opted to send all students back to school for in-person learning four days a week starting on Monday, Oct. 12, unless a student has a medical exemption. Wednesdays will remain a virtual learning day for students and a cleaning day for the schools. The vote passed 8-1 with board member Chad Fleenor voting in opposition.
The board’s previous plan was to send all students back to school full time starting on Oct. 12.
“We are definitely on the increase locally,” Director of Schools Bill Flanary said. “There are 19 new (COVID-19) cases just in the last week (for Washington County residents ages 5-18). The board’s directive is that Washington County Schools return to full enrollment on Oct. 12, the day we come back from fall break. I recommend at this time that the board amend that directive to set aside Wednesdays as a full virtual day for all students pre-K-12.”
The board also decided to have Flanary and his staff contact all students who are failing on Monday, Oct. 12, in order to have them back for in-person school by Monday, Oct. 19. That motion passed 8-1 with Annette Buchanan voting in opposition.
Board member Keith Ervin, who made the motion, said he was still concerned about students who are failing classes. At the Sept. 3 BOE meeting, Director of Secondary Education Ashley Keys said 31% of Boone and Crockett seniors are failing at least one course.
“Let’s get these kids back in school,” Ervin said. “If they want to stay virtual, they have to do their work. If they’re not doing their work, it’s our responsibility to get them back in school.”
Buchanan said she felt the county school system would lose students should the virtual option be taken away.
“Our pediatric cases are on the rise,” Buchanan said. “We are about six weeks behind everybody (on the spread of the virus). We’re going to tell the parents they have to bring their kids back, which they’re the ones spreading the virus. We are going to lose these kids. They will go to homeschool.”
Before the board voted to send students back full time four days a week— which was decided two and a half hours into the five-hour meeting — the board discussed the role of teachers juggling online and in-person teaching.
Along with other board members, Mary Beth Dellinger said she had received numerous complaints from teachers with one educator saying she had “never felt more over worked and undervalued” in her teaching career.
“It’s the fact that they feel like they’re going to be slighting (virtual students or in-person students) or both,” Dellinger said. “That is a concern and I don’t know if Dr. Flanary has a way to work on that. That’s just the frustrations they’re feeling.”
Flanary said in order to have different teachers for in-person teaching and online teaching, the school system would need to hire 16 new teachers, which Finance Director Brad Hale said would take $1.1 million from reserve funds.
“Even if you put more money into (hiring) teachers, I wonder where you’d hire them,” Flanary said. “(The school system’s special education director) has two openings in special education and no hope of filling them.”
Board member Mike Masters said he felt that bringing in the students who are failing under the virtual learning plan would help lessen the number of students learning from home and would lighten the teachers’ workload.
“If the kids that are virtual and are failing have to come to school,” Masters said, “I think that number will shrink.”
The board also discussed a moisture problem at its newest facility, Boones Creek School, which opened last school year.
The BOE’s construction manager, Tommy Burleson, said the moisture problem started “initially” after the school opened.
“We started looking,” Burleson said, “and normally when you’ve got moisture on the floor and there are no stains or leaks in the roof, you start looking at it coming from the bottom. After extensive testing we made the determination the water was not coming from the bottom.
“We looked to see if it was coming from the top. That wasn’t it … I say with 97% confidence that it is high humidity of the building.”
Burleson said a normal amount of humidity in a building is anywhere between 30% to 50%. Boones Creek School, he said, has not been below 60% humidity since its opening.
Burleson said the solution would be to increase the temperature in the school for five to six days while students are on fall break. Once the problem is fixed, he said, the tile and carpet can be put back down. The board, he said, should know if the plan worked by its retreat scheduled for Oct. 17 and 18.
“What we want to do initially is increase the temperature in the building to about 74 degrees to try to heat the building up,” Burleson said. “We feel very comfortable this will do it.”
The next BOE meeting is set for Thursday, Nov. 5 at the Washington County Department of Education, 405 W College St., Jonesborough. That meeting will also be livestreamed at wcde.org.