The Wilson County Schools Board of Education voted Sept. 8 to send pre-K through third-graders back to school on a full-time traditional schedule beginning Monday.
Two women spoke at the beginning of the meeting — one a grandmother caring for her grandchildren and the other a single working mother of three — both of whom urged the board to return to traditional, full-time, face-to-face education as soon as possible.
Cindy Harel of Lebanon said that the hybrid and virtual models are not working for many, especially non-traditional families. Many children don’t have tremendous support and home, she said, and those children are falling further and further behind.
“Working grandparents don’t have time to be a teacher,” she said.
Other districts around the state have gone back to traditional education, that’s the model that Wilson County parents have said they wanted and prep sports has returned, she said to applause from the audience.
Andrea Stoeppler of Mt. Juliet said keeping up with her three children’s school work was nearly impossible, noting she is dealing with 18 different teachers, each of whom has a different way they want things done.
“The hybrid model is just not working,” she said, adding later, “I want you guys to understand, we are struggling.”
Her comments also drew applause.
Director of Schools Donna Wright acknowledged the difficult start to the school year, saying, “This has been a struggle for all of us.”
But she also pointed out the difficulties the district has faced — the tornado of March 3 that destroyed Stoner Creek Elementary School and West Wilson Middle School, followed weeks later by the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic that saw students sent home to complete the year remotely. And she praised the work of the staff across the district.
Wright, who was given the authority by the board to determine whether the district would be using a hybrid model, in which half the students go to school two days a week and work remotely the other two, a traditional model or 100% remote education, said she was hoping to resume traditional learning on Oct. 12, the Monday after the Oct. 5-9 fall break.
“We want to come back to a full-time, traditional model,” Wright said. However, she added, “we have to protect our staff. The majority of our staff are in the high risk category.”
Coming back too soon could lead to outbreaks that require grades or even schools to go to remote learning, she said.
Several board members indicated a majority of the constituents they had communicated with wanted school to return to the traditional model, and discussion quickly turned to bringing the youngest students back before fall break.
District Health Service Supervisor Chuck Whitlock told the board that COVID-19 was spreading more at the high school level, with the least spread in the elementary schools. He said since school started Aug. 17, 57 students and staff have test positive for COVID-19. That has led to 153 people being quarantined because of close contact with the infected.
Board member Jon White was the first to suggest a phased-in return to the traditional model, with board Chair Larry Tomlinson and members Linda Armistead and Jamie Farough supporting him.
Board member Carrie Pfeiffer cautioned against making arbitrary decisions on when to return to the traditional model.
“I feel like we need health-based guidelines that are clear and public,” she said, garnering support from White.
Whitlock was asked which metrics the district looks at in determining how the district is handling COVID-19. He said the “gold standard” is the Harvard University’s seven day rolling average of new cases per 100,000 population. Right now, Wilson County is averaging about 20 new cases per day, which is in the high risk range. Three to 10 is medium risk, 10-25 is high risk and above 25 is critical, he said. The county peaked at 41 new cases per 100,000 population in the third week of July, and has been as low as about 14 since then, according a chart Whitlock displayed.
When asked what is prompting other Tennessee districts to return to the traditional model, he said, “Generally, public pressure.”
Armistead made a motion to have pre-K through third-graders return to traditional education beginning Sept. 21. She said that limiting the returning students would allow the district to gauge how the traditional model was working without overwhelming the staff, and starting in two weeks would give teachers time to prepare.
The vote was 6-1 in favor of Armistead’s motion, with Bill Robinson casting the lone no vote. Robinson argued that the board should stick to the reopening plan it had already approved that gave Wright the authority to determine when traditional education returned.