To remote or not to remote? State tries to clear up gray area for systems grappling with high COVID case rates

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School leaders say local autonomy still preferred

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Local Tennessee school leaders must submit waiver requests if they want to provide temporary remote instruction at the class or schoolwide level to combat COVID-related difficulties.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn elaborated on that decision Monday in a conference call with school leaders after sending a letter about the waiver decision Friday.

But at least one local superintendent said the ideal state-local relationship would be one in which local school boards and administration had the autonomy to determine when temporary closures are needed.

And another said his system had already made classroom and even “team-wide” decisions to implement remote learning based on its own judgment and interpretation of state regulations.

“I believe everyone usually errs on the side of local decisions as far as if you’re a locally elected official, you certainly see the value of that,” Washington County Superintendent Jerry Boyd told News Channel 11 Monday following the call.

“Locally we see what’s in front of us more clearly.”

Washington County announced a district-wide closure Friday afternoon, not long before Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn sent a letter to systems statewide alerting them to the waiver decision.

That wouldn’t have made any difference in the case of Washington County, because a district-wide temporary remote option remains contrary to state regulations. Only an emergency order from Gov. Bill Lee could change that, Boyd said, but he added that the closure was the best decision for a system that had 1,500 students in quarantine (out of about 8,300) the last two days of last week.

Boyd said the system might have sought full-school remote approval for some of its schools prior to today had it been a clear option.

“There always are a lot of gray areas, especially in laws and policies,” Boyd said. “We’re left to interpret and try to implement at a local level.”

“With clearer guidance this morning every district in Tennessee has a clear path as far as what needs to be done if the decision needs to be made to move a school only, individual school, to a remote learning model,” Boyd added.

During a media conference call Monday, Schwinn said learning loss was very real and the evidence could be seen in last year’s TCAP scores. She cited that as a reason keeping kids in school and having a consistent class schedule remains a priority, but said the waiver gives schools a chance to have ‘common sense flexibilities’ when it comes to continuing education.

“If a student is quarantined, a classroom is quarantined or a school is quarantined, it is the expectation that those children are receiving the same number of instructional hours that they otherwise would have,” Schwinn said.

“It is an instructional day and it is remote learning. It is not a day off, it is not a closure, it is moving to remote teaching and learning so students should still receive the same level of instruction that they otherwise would have received in-person.”

Johnson City: Awaiting permission wasn’t best option

Johnson City Schools Director Steve Barnett said his system has been interpreting the regulations as allowing local decision-making.

“We’ve done that now for over a year,” Barnett said. “Our focus is to do this by student, by classroom, by team.”

Between Aug. 16 and Aug. 20, a total of six complete “teams” of roughly 75 students each from Indian Trail Intermediate School (ITIS) were sent home for two-week remote learning periods.

But at higher grade levels, where students are eligible for vaccination, the system has used a more precise mitigation approach.

“That’s the goal, is to get to where you don’t have to close a classroom or you don’t have to close a team,” Barnett said.

In the case of ITIS, he said the system’s Aug. 13 mask mandate decision, increased contact tracing and the quarantine of entire halls has helped the system get that school’s COVID situation under much better control.

“I don’t want to ask them permission to do the right thing,” Barnett said of the ITIS decisions. “The other option is not to contact trace…

“When our nurses went out and really worked so hard, worked through the weekend and contact traced (around Aug. 14-15) and got caught up at Indian Trail, that’s where we turned the corner — hopefully turned the corner at that school of keeping our students in school, keeping our teachers and staff in school and doing it safely.”

He said the quarantining of the teams, the implementation of a mask mandate (though it does have an opt-out provision) and the robust contact tracing has led to a major decline in COVID at ITIS.

“On Friday we contact traced three students at Indian Trail,” Barnett said. “So that is huge. You do send some students home that end up not testing positive, but they were direct contacts with a virus that the rate right now of infection is either 7 or 8 to 1 (infections spread from each case).”

Letter: Waivers to be ‘narrowly applied’

Schwinn’s letter says the state’s rules regarding remote instruction “are intended to prevent districts from unilaterally requiring students to remain remote with no end in sight.”

Boyd said he can’t think of a single area school system whose leaders want to do anything approaching a unilateral requirement with no end in sight.

“Everyone that I’m aware of certainly wants any remote model as a primary intervention to be temporary,” Boyd said. “We all strongly believe that students’ best opportunity to learn is in person.”

Unicoi County Superintendent John English agreed.

“We’d have to be in a really dire situation to where we’d need to go that route,” he said. “We want to keep our doors open.”

The letter also said Schwinn expects to allow waivers to be applied only “narrowly.”

Again, Boyd said the appropriateness of such a closure is seen more clearly at the local level.

“The question is at what point is the quality of the learning experience for the students significantly impacted,” Boyd said.

“Are we just trying to maintain that open classroom to the detriment of learning and also to the people? To our teachers, to our instructional assistants, our principals and most importantly our students.

“So there certainly is a tipping point and that’s why every district’s decision’s unique and there’s not just a flow chart of A B and C to make decisions.”

English said not having enough staff is one potential scenario in which remote learning would be a fallback.

And Boyd said had it been an option at the district level, Washington County might have deployed it for this Monday-Thursday – assuming Schwinn’s Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) would have approved the requests.

“The remote learning model certainly is not ideal but it enables us to continue during temporary times when we have a large number of students out due to COVID,” Boyd said.

“We had been ready. Our teachers have been providing those supports in various ways and our schools have when we’ve had students that have been excluded due to exposure.”

Instead, they added four “stockpiled” days reserved for inclement weather to the one that was already set for this Friday, when teachers will have an in-service day.

Boyd said many students and staff who were already quarantined were going to be eligible to return after Labor Day — a fact that influenced Friday’s decision.

“That should give sufficient time assuming no one gets exposure in the community, which is a great concern too,” Boyd said.

He’s hopeful the time away — and intensive deep cleaning inside the schools — will help nip the COVID trend if not in the bud, it least before it reaches full bloom.

“It was a 10-day window from Saturday until that Tuesday the seventh so we felt very strongly that would give an opportunity for a lot of those that were in quarantine to push through that period of time and return healthy and ready to go on the seventh.”

Given the continued shifting situation with respect to COVID’s impact, Boyd suggested that despite the increased clarity from TDOE, what Schwinn outlined Monday still isn’t ideal.

“Not having the ability to transition from remote, from in person to remote and back without going through the waiver process is certainly detrimental,” Boyd said before clarifying. “Not detrimental, that’s the wrong word. It increases the challenge.”

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