Health and safety concerns for teachers and students in Greene County Schools was the main topic of discussion at the called Greene County Board of Education meeting Monday night.
The meeting was called in order to approve the Framework for Returning to School document developed by the district for returning to school in the fall.
After extensive discussion the board approved the document with two amendments as the framework for a return to “brick and mortar” instruction.
Director of Schools David McLain said a separate plan for virtual learning will be finalized later this month.
The amendments to the plan are to align the definitions for rate of COVID-19 spread with the definitions in the plan developed by Greeneville City Schools and to change the protocols for screening students and staff to say that if a student is found to have a temperature of 100 or higher he or she should stay home. Before the amendments the document contained some references to students staying home if a temperature of 100.4 was discovered.
The plan developed by Greeneville City Schools, Framework for Safe Reopening of Schools, defines a rate of spread as “no to minimal” if there is an average rate of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 of 0-6.99 in the previous 14 days for a period of three consecutive days. Spread is considered “minimal to moderate” while there is an average per 100,000 of 7-10.99 new cases in the same time period of 14 days for three consecutive days, and an average rate of 11 or more per 100,000 in the same time frame is considered substantial.
McLain said the Greene County school system will align the definitions for rates of spread with those defined in the city schools’ plan as both districts are involved with the Greene Technology Center and deal with the same community and health department.
The board heard from Rebekah English, regional director of the Tennessee Department of Health for the northeast region, who discussed how the rate of spread is calculated and took questions from board members.
English explained that because Greene County does not have 100,000 residents, the averages for Greene County published on the health department website are prorated to 70,000.
McLain and English discussed the close relationship both said will exist between the school system and the health department in order to track new cases and mitigate risks.
English said that while weather incidents and the flu season produce similar concerns when it comes to potential school closures, the situation is trickier with COVID-19, and a detailed investigation would follow a positive test in the district. This would help to identify any clusters, where one person exposes and infects others in a particular location, and help to contain the spread, English explained.
“This is uncharted territory and it’s a hard situation for all of us,” McLain said. “We have to work jointly with the health department.”
Positive cases within Greene County Schools will not necessarily lead to district-wide closures, McLain said, but instances involving positive cases will be considered on an individual basis and a decision may be reached to close one class rather than a systemwide closure.
“We can’t tell you to close a school, but we can give you the metrics and tell you about clustering,” English said referring to clusters of cases related to an initial exposure to the virus.
English also discussed the benefits of wearing masks and frequent hand washing but acknowledged the difficulties in making sure young children particularly follow directions.
However English praised the plan as “a tremendous job done over a difficult subject.”
The board also heard from Rhonda Lankford, Greene County Education Association president and a teacher at Chuckey-Doak High School, who discussed concerns about the Framework for Returning to School document submitted to her by teachers within the district.
Lankford said that while teachers want to return to the classroom, many are in high-risk categories or live with someone who is and are concerned for their own safety and their family’s safety.
Some of the concerns Lankford discussed included cleaning product shortages and uncertainty over what a switch to virtual learning would look like in the event the rate of spread becomes substantial.
Lankford also said some teachers wanted a plan for a staggered schedule where students attend school on staggered days each week and were concerned that the safety precaution of locking doors could worsen instances where a student is carrying COVID-19.
“Nobody wants normal as bad as teachers and students, but safety has to come first,” Lankford said. “Some teachers feel very safe, but others do not.”
Board member Clark Justis also expressed serious concern for teachers and school staff over the rising number of positive and active cases in Greene County.
Justis made a motion to amend the academic calendar to extend the start of the school year out three weeks from August 5 to August 24 in order to see how reopening on schedule goes for other districts in the region before deciding to reopen Greene County Schools.
Justis said some teachers have tested positive for COVID-19 and stressed concern for teachers and principals in high risk categories. Justis also expressed concern for the possibility of having to close schools after starting in August if many teachers or custodians become ill and cannot work.
“Waiting three weeks would give us a much better idea of what the health and wellbeing of our community will be,” Justis said.
Board member Minnie Banks seconded the motion, but the motion did not pass.
McLain said in preparation for a return to school in-person, as a majority of parents expressed preference for in surveys conducted on the district website, Greene County Schools has purchased 200 face shields, thousands of masks and 40 electrical and cordless sprayers for cleaning chemicals.
The district will also begin advertising for part-time custodians to clean schools in the evenings. These positions will be paid for through CARES Act funds.
The board also voted to approve Greene County Schools as a critical infrastructure using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention infrastructure guidelines. This classification provides a framework for asymptomatic employees who have been exposed to COVID-19 to continue working as long as they do not develop symptoms and additional precautions are taken while the employee is at work following exposure.
McLain said the district’s plan for continuous education to continue learning even if spread becomes substantial and schools close due to high numbers of COVID-19 cases is due July 24.