Students in Greene County Schools will start the 2020-21 school year in an online format Aug. 17 due to the current rate of COVID-19 spread, Director of Schools David McLain announced at a Saturday morning called school board meeting.

Online learning will continue for three weeks before school system leaders evaluate whether to return to classroom instruction. After that, a decision will be made weekly.

The board approved an amended academic calendar for the 2020-21 school year which includes added professional development days Aug. 6-7 and 10-14.

The first day of school was listed in the calendar as a half day on Aug. 5 and the first full day would be Aug. 7. In the amended calendar approved Wednesday morning, Aug. 5 is still listed as a half day but the first full day will now be Aug. 17, and students will be participating in online learning.

McLain said the extra time will allow more time to prepare for online learning, including to distribute student devices, and 64% of teachers felt that they would benefit from having the extra time to prepare.

The board also approved amendments to the district’s Framework for Returning to School document which clarify operations for the district while conditions in Greene County are in the red zone, or while spread is considered substantial.

Substantial spread is defined as an average rate per 100,000 of 11 or more new COVID-19 cases in the previous 14 days for a period of three consecutive days.

Board member Minnie Banks said the rate of COVID-19 spread in Greene County as of Saturday morning was 15.62 per 100,000.

According to the amended framework document, school opening recommendations while spread of COVID-19 in Greene County is considered substantial will be that all students operate under the district’s plan for online learning.

Face-to-face instruction may be provided to some vulnerable populations in school buildings, according to the amended document, and certified and classified staff will be present and required to observe social distancing protocols in the school buildings during regular school hours.

Vulnerable populations include students in pre-kindergarten through second grade, students with disabilities, students performing two or more grade levels behind, students who fail to complete their work and fulfill attendance requirements, and students who do not have internet access at home.

Assistant Director of Academics and Human Resources Dr. Bill Ripley said the youngest group of students will be considered a vulnerable population because of the foundational skills these students must learn that are difficult or impossible to teach virtually.

Time spent in classrooms while under substantial community spread of COVID-19 will be in small groups and limited to two and a half hours.

Each Thursday, the district will work with the local health department to examine epidemic curve data and clusters to make a decision on a learning mode for the following week, the amended plan says.

The decision on the next week’s mode of instruction will be announced by 10 a.m. on Fridays to give parents and teachers time to prepare for the week.

The vote to approve the amendments passed 6-1, with Banks voting no.

The board also voted to allow varsity athletics while under substantial spread under Gov. Bill Lee’s July 31 executive order.

Appendix J in the framework document, which pertains to athletics, will be amended to include the verbiage in the Greeneville City Schools’ Framework for Safe Reopening of Schools for the protocols for athletics while under substantial spread.

The verbiage used is that while students are participating in online learning due to substantial COVID-19 spread, athletics will follow the recommendations of the Governor’s Office, Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, First Tennessee CORE Regional Superintendents, and state and local health departments as it pertains to athletic practices and competitions.

McLain clarified that the protocols in Appendix J will apply to all sports including cheerleading and band.

The vote passed 5-2, with board members Michelle Holt and Brian Wilhoit voting no.

The board also approved salaries for the Extended School Program and a rate increase of two dollars extra per hour will be provided through the program.

The next regular meeting of the Greene County Board of Education will be Thursday, Aug. 27 at 5:30 p.m. and the board discussed plans to call another meeting in early September.

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