Few fears and fewer masks as more school districts return to campus across the region

Back To School

TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – It’s back to school for another batch of children as Monday marks the start of classes for Unicoi County Schools, Hawkins County Schools, Sullivan County Schools, Dickenson County Schools, Washington County Virginia Schools and Tri-Cities Christian Academy.

It was a smooth first day for districts across the region as they welcomed students back on campus, something that was taken for granted before the pandemic. Following the year and a half students have had, district leaders are doing their best to return to normal as much as they can, while at the same time, not jeopardizing the health and safety of students and faculty.

The start of school looks far different depending on which side of the state line you call home. In Southwest Virginia schools, several districts have already implemented mask requirements regardless of vaccination status. Dickenson and Washington County Schools started the academic year following those face-covering guidelines set forth by Governor Ralph Northam.

However, in Tennessee, the consensus remains that masks are recommended and not required on campuses. Tri-Cities Christian Academy, like many other schools in our region, has also set forth the protocol that face coverings are optional this school year, and it’s a choice students said they wholeheartedly agree with.

“I know a lot of people might be uncomfortable with not wearing a mask, but there are also people who want to go back to how we’ve been in the past, so I really enjoy being able to make that decision,” said Tri-Cities Christian Academy 9th Grader, Chance Hawkins.

Hawkins’s classmate and senior, Madison Hoskins, also agreed that having the option to make this decision on their own was the best move.

“I have full trust in the school. I know it’s our personal choice, but they’ve given us that choice and I’m thankful for that. Everybody’s situation is different and it’s good to take into account personal needs so I’m glad I’ve been given that opportunity,” said Hoskins.

Hawkins said he’s just grateful to be learning in-person and not forced to take classes through a computer screen like many students had to do last academic year.

“I did online school for a year, and it was not good because I found that I got distracted a lot, and I feel that it’s a lot better to be in-person where you can connect with teachers and friends,” said Hawkins.

Keeping students on campus remains a top priority among educators across the region, and for those Tri-Cities Christian Academy students, staying in person will allow them to participate in their new dual enrollment program in partnership with King University. While the campus made few changes last year due to the pandemic, they feel this year will be a similar story and they’re just happy students are back from Summer break.

“Seeing those students on our campus and just system-wide is just a great day and a very exciting day for our staff and faculty,” said Tri-Cities Christian Academy Head of School, Britt Stone.

Unicoi County Schools Superintendent, John English has big goals for the new school year and says the first day went smoothly. “I’m hoping to see smiles on kids’ faces and as many normal activities we can have while also trying to maintain safety and being aware of where we are with COVID still,” said English.

While most students came back to a familiar campus, the new year meant a new school for Sullivan County students, with juniors and seniors setting foot on the West Ridge High School campus for the first time.

“We’ve got a new campus here, a new building which is exciting for everyone, but it’s just great to have our students all over Sullivan County back in school this Monday,” said Interim Sullivan County Schools Superintendent, Evelyn Rafalowski. “This has given us an opportunity to really work with our students about where the exits are, go through our emergency drills and let them get some familiarity t the campus, their new classrooms, and the new staff.”

While recommending masks is the current stance among most Northeast Tennessee schools, it could change later in the school year.

“We’re taking it day by day. We’re certainly monitoring and having the conversations with health department folks and hospital folks almost daily. But right now, we’re sticking with masks are recommended but not required,” said English.

School leaders News Channel 11 spoke with said they are closely monitoring cases in both their localities and school systems and are ready to adjust safety plans if necessary. However, as of now, the goal is to have more days as successful as the first day of the 2021-2022 academic year.

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