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Board approves limited return to school

 Students in Kindergarten, Sixth and Ninth grades can return this week

By: Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

 Superintendent of schools, Dr. Ronnie Dotson, spoke with the school board last Thursday about the possibility of a “soft opening” as soon as Monday of this week. Dotson explained that he didn’t want children in all grades to go back to school in person yet, but those in transitional grades, he explained, might benefit from starting back to school in person a little early. Students in Kindergarten, sixth grade, and high school freshmen are all going to be attending school in buildings that are new to them, Dotson explained, and that can cause anxiety about where classes are located, where bathrooms are at, and how to get to the cafeteria, among other issues. 

Dotson said when he talked to the parents of children at these transitional grades, the anxiety about the new building, and knowing where to go, was among their top concerns. He said most of the teachers he had talked to were also in favor of performing such a soft opening before all students return to school as well. Dotson said if the soft opening was approved by the board that the district would run their regular bus routes as normal for those students. 

“When possible, we’ll socially distance by six feet,” Dotson said of the planned soft reopening. When it was not possible to distance by at least six feet, he said, teachers would have students distance as far as was possible. 

The board moved to approve the soft opening while approving discussion items later in the meeting. 

The board also heard from Heritage Elementary fourth and fifth grade reading teacher Katie Adkins on the use of technology to teach reading and an update on the technology discussed by Judy Dotson in previous meetings. 

Board member Rachel Fankell thanked Adkins for the presentation and for the work she and other teachers were doing with not only students, but parents as well. 

“You’re teaching (parents) right along with the students,” Fankell said. 

The board also heard from district technology director, Barrett Bush, on the use of school resources for online learning. Bush told the board that over the past thirty days the district has had over 4,000 users online. Those 4,000 users have visited 9.7 million web pages, with more than 70 percent of those pages educational in nature. Bush said some of the other sites visited may have been educational as well, but were not strictly defined as such. In addition to the webpage hits, students had viewed over 172,000 videos, with most of those educational as well. 

Dotson expressed his appreciation to Bush, as well as to teachers for the steps they had taken above and beyond the typical classroom requirements in order to serve their students during the pandemic. 

 During the public comments period, Trish Reynolds, a parent with students in the school system, asked the board to consider the option of a split schedule when school resumed rather than a full return. Under the system Reynolds asked the board to consider students with last names beginning with the letter A through the letter M would go back to school on Mondays and Tuesdays, and continue their learning the rest of the week online. Students with last names that began with N – Z would go back to school on Thursday and Friday, after beginning their school week online. Wednesdays would be used to deep clean the school buildings between groups, as well as for special needs students or students requiring tutoring to have a day to meet in person. Reynolds also asked the board to solicit and accept the feedback of parents and teachers in considering these options. 

Mitzie Heaberlin, who serves on the Prichard Elementary site based council also addressed the board. Heaberlin thanked Dotson for coming to the last meeting of the site based decision making council, and asked questions about the use of federal and state funds made available to the school system because of COVID-19. Among Heaberlin’s suggestions for possible uses for those funds was for equipment that helps limit contact and the spread of germs. For instance she noted that there are water fountain attachments which allow students to more effectively use the fountains for filling water bottles. The use of those types of fountain attachments, she noted, instead of traditional water fountains, could help limit the spread of viruses. 

Heaberlin also expressed concerns about the board’s decision to restart school at the end of the month as they currently planned to. 

“I trust Jason (McGlone, Heritage Elementary principal) whole heartedly,” Heaberlin said. 

“But,” she added, “none of you (currently) have a child in (Carter County public schools).” 

“I do appreciate everything you do,” Heaberlin continued, but said it didn’t help alleviate her concerns about a return to the classroom. 

School board member Bryan Greenhill pushed back at Heaberlin during the discussion item section of the agenda. After approving the opportunity to return early for transitional students, Greenhill said that while he knows “teachers are doing the best they can,” he’s received complaints from parents that kids aren’t getting their assignments. He said that could be from students not doing what they were supposed to do while their parents were at work. However, he said, that didn’t stop him from worrying about kids slipping between the cracks and those “cracks” widening into a “gorge.” 

“I’m worried about these ‘crack kids’ falling into a gorge,” Greenhill said. “But I’m not going to put any child in danger.” 

The board has previously moved to allow any student whose family is not comfortable with their return to school to continue using online resources until it was deemed safe for schools to resume. 

After holding a hearing on their tax rate where no complaints or feedback were registered, the board also moved to approve keeping their property tax rate, for both real estate and tangibles, at 48.1 cents per $100 of valuation. This is the same rate that the board approved in the previous year. 

“People might see an increase in their tax rate,” Dotson said. “But it won’t be from us.” 

In addition to approving their property tax rates, the board moved to approve the facilities plan presented by Andy Lyons. While the district won’t be making any radical changes at present, the plan Lyons submitted stated that consolidation of the two high schools, and a shared campus with the Carter County Career and Technical Center, would eventually be necessary if the school population continued to decline. 

“It will eventually have to happen,” Lyons said, though he noted he was not making that suggestion at present, but rather noted the district will need to consider such a move, eventually. 

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

Heritage Elementary reading teacher, Katie Adkins, gives a presentation on the e-learning environment during the Carter County Board of Education meeting last week. (Photo by Jeremy D. Wells, Carter County Times)

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