By MARINA WATERS
After months of virtual learning and a hybrid schedule for Washington County Schools, the Washington County Board of Education is hoping to find consistency for its school schedule.
At the called BOE meeting on Monday, Nov. 23, the school board opted to continue operating on a virtual schedule through Friday, Jan. 8. The vote passed 7-2. Board members Annette Buchanan, Jason Day, Mary Beth Dellinger, Chad Fleenor, David Hammond, Mitch Meredith and Whitney Riddle voted in favor. Board members Keith Ervin and Mike Masters voted in opposition.
“(Virtual learning) is not the best,” Fleenor said. “No one would say it is. But we have some incredible teachers who have made that the best it can be.”
The decision didn’t come without a discussion on how to proceed throughout the end of the year and an update from Washington County Director of Schools Bill Flanary, who said COVID-19 cases continue to stay on the rise in the county.
Flanary said engineers at Georgia Tech have discovered a way to gauge COVID-19 risk in a given area. According to their method, in a room of 50 people, Flanary said, there is a 70% chance someone in the room would have COVID-19. In a room of 100 people in Washington County, there is a 96% chance someone would have the virus. Flanary also said the region as a whole has been struggling with COVID-19 increases.
“Northeast Tennessee is in the red zone,” Flanary said. “That’s as bad as it can get — and that’s from the task force at the White House.”
Director of Coordinated School Health Kelly Wagner said the seven-day and 14-day averages since Nov. 5 have only gone up. She also said she didn’t expect the averages to decline until a vaccine is delivered in the county.
“Numbers are still going up,” Wagner said. “Honestly, they aren’t going to plateau or even decline until we get a vaccine approved and administered in the community. That’s where we’re at right now.”
Caleb Anderson, one of Boone’s student board members, said he sent out a survey to his classmates and received 488 responses. He said about 75% percent of the responses said students wished to return to school.
“Whatever decision you make,” Anderson said, “you need to make it consistent throughout the rest of the year … (students) want to go back. I know there are ways to do this…”
“It’s not good for their mental health. You’ve got domestic violence, child abuse that’s increasing a lot. I feel like we need to get students back in the classroom.”
Ervin said he also wished to see students return in-person rather than remain on a virtual schedule. He suggested students return in-person on Nov. 30 until Christmas break and then return after the new year.
“If it’s possible in any way,” Ervin told the board, “I think we need to get them back in school for a couple of weeks.”
For Meredith and Day, the key goal from here on out is to find consistency.
“Students are looking for consistency,” Meredith said. “They want to know what’s going to happen for the rest of the year. I think parents are in that same boat. I know teachers are in that boat. My real concern is what Ms. Wagner said. These numbers aren’t going to go down until we have a vaccine. We aren’t going to have a vaccine on Jan. 20 … My concern is what this board is going to do in 2021 so that we don’t have a wasted year of school. That’s the challenge.”
Buchanan added that she wanted to see K-3 students return, safely, in person.
“We need to make a plan to be able to get pre-K-3 back in school,” Buchanan said. “There are lots of things we can do. We aren’t making a physical plan of what we can do to get them back in. We can put up barriers (between students). Some schools have used dry-erase board type things. There has to be something affordable we can do for K-3 to get them back in the classroom. It is time to make a plan.”
Hammond also made a motion, which passed unanimously, to allow seventh through 12th graders to participate in science lab work in person.
“I want high schoolers to have access to labs.” Hammond said. “I think we need to let Dr. Flanary explore, talk with principals and seventh and eighth grade teachers about how to allow labs for middle schools in a safe and healthy way.”
The board also agreed to hold a called meeting on Monday, Jan. 4 to discuss the school plan. To join in on the livestreamed meeting, go to www.wcde.org.