Wilson County Schools fourth and fifth graders will return to traditional learning — in school five days a week — when they return from fall break on Oct. 12.

WCS Director Donna Wright announced her decision during Thursday’s school board meeting, and the board unanimously voted to support the action. Also, during a work session before the meeting, it was announced by Health Services Supervisor Chuck Whitlock that a school was being closed Friday because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

In making her announcement, Wright said sixth through 12th graders would remain on the hybrid schedule — two days at school, two days learning from home — because the risk of transmission of the disease is higher among those students. Among other reasons, that’s because of the difficulty in enforcing social distancing when students are changing classes in crowded hallways. Staying on the hybrid schedule will be reevaluated every 20 days between Oct. 12 and the end of the term in December, Wright said.

The fourth and fifth graders join pre-K through third graders in traditional learning. The younger students returned Sept. 22 at the behest of the board. In voting to support Wright’s decision Thursday, board Chairman Larry Tomlinson said, “If she’s going to step out there and make a recommendation like this,” then the board needs to support her.

There was some debate as to whether a vote was necessary, with board member Bill Robinson arguing that Wright could make the decision as part of her role in charge of “day-to-day operations” of the district. However, board attorney Mike Jennings said the board should vote because the decision affected education for the rest of the semester.

Whitlock announced the school closure during his report on COVID-19 in the district. He did not name the school, but WCS spokesman Bart Barker identified it as West Elementary School in an email.

“Today for the first time we had to send out a notice on a school closure,” Whitlock told the board, adding that a “couple of cases had a large impact” at the school.

Barker said via email Friday that there were multiple cases at West that prompted the closure, and that having enough staff for the school was an issue. Barker declined to give specific numbers for the school, citing privacy, but did say, “ ... while there are multiple, but not many cases at West, the close contact quarantines played a significant factor also.”

Following state and federal guidelines, those who have been in close contact with someone who tests positive must stay away from school for 14 days. That applies to all personnel and students.

Whitlock said the district has seen “a little bit” of an increase in cases in the past two weeks, and according to the district’s COVID dashboard, in the week ending Sept. 25 there were 20 new student cases and 100 new students quarantined, and five new staff cases and 14 new quarantines. The dashboard is available on the district’s website and is updated weekly.

“Our county trends don’t want to budge down,” he said.

While county Mayor Randall Hutto has allowed his mandate that masks be worn in public lapse, the district is not changing its mask policy. Christina Harris, supervisor of educator effectiveness, said teachers and staff will continue to wear masks and masks will required on buses. Students up through fifth grade are encouraged to wear masks, and sixth through 12th graders are required to wear them. There are exceptions, including for health reasons, while eating or drinking, and while outdoors and able to maintain social distancing.

The district will continue offering virtual learning in the second semester, Harris said. Signup for virtual learning will be from Oct. 12 to Oct. 30, with the 30th a “hard deadline,” she said. Those in virtual this semester will need to re-enroll. Those who take no action, will be defaulted to the hybrid or traditional models, whichever is in use next semester. Wright said 2,649 of the district’s 18,502 students were enrolled in virtual learning.

Wright acknowledged the difficulty parents and students are facing during the pandemic.

“We understand the struggle of parents,” she said. “We are asking teachers to reassess the volume of work, we are asking parents to make sure the work is done. We all need to be prepared to move to remote learning.”

She cited the fact that several schools around the state have had to close, and the Tennessee Titans struggle with its recent COVID outbreak that has caused the postponement of its next game.

“I’m hoping this is temporary,” she said. “I’m hoping with good behavior we will see a change.”

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