Some Sumner County public school students could return to in-person classes five days a week starting next month.

On Tuesday, the Sumner County Board of Education unanimously approved an updated version of the district’s plan for reopening schools on Aug. 3 amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

All students who choose to return to in-person classes will still use a hybrid schedule for the first two weeks of the year and will attend school either on Mondays and Thursday or Tuesdays and Fridays depending on the first letter of their last name.

However, the new plan adds an extended hybrid schedule where all Pre-K, K-5 and comprehensive development class students would attend in-person classes at their school beginning Aug. 17. The schedule is subject to change based on the amount of community spread of the virus countywide.

“(This) gives our principals and teachers an opportunity to set up routines, get students back acclimated that are going back to campus, and I think gives us our best shot to be successful,” Director of Schools Dr. Del Phillips said Tuesday.

Other changes made to the plan based on feedback from parents include requiring face coverings for all visitors to campuses; changing a 72 hour monitoring recommendation to encourage a 14 day quarantine for students who were in close contact with a COVID-19 positive person; and making face shields available for K-5, special education and speech language/deaf education teachers so that students can see when they are talking.

Phillips first unveiled the school district’s reopening plan last week. The three-tiered approach includes different methods of learning that are determined based on minimal, moderate and substantial community spread of the virus countywide.

According to the plan, students would return to a traditional schedule of in-personal classes if there is minimal spread of less than .5 percent. The hybrid model, which occurs when spread is between .5 and 1 percent, means schools would remain open but students would attend classes two days a week and learn at home with Sumner Connect the remaining three days. If there is substantial spread of more than 1 percent, school buildings would be closed and remote or distance learning would take place.

Families concerned about the return to in-person classes also have the option to have their child attend the alternative Sumner Virtual Academy. The program, available to all K-12 students, will include its own teachers and will have an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule. Unlike virtual learning platforms that were offered in the spring, attendance will be taken, and students will be graded on their work.

A survey conducted by the school district last week found that the re-entry plans meet or mostly meet the needs of 67 percent of the nearly 7,300 parents who responded, according to the survey results released Tuesday.

“There is so much unknown about (this virus) that it makes it hard to have a perfect plan,” School Board member Andy Daniels said Tuesday. “I like that there is some flexibility and I like that there is an opportunity for those that don’t want their children in the classroom to have a virtual learning experience. Even though that isn’t optimal, at least they have that option.

“We just need to respect the decision that every parent makes for their child because every situation is different, and every circumstance is different.”

Registration for the district’s virtual academy has been extended through Sunday, July 26. Students in K-8 must sign up for a nine-week interval while high school students are locked into a semester.

Survey: Feelings mixed on return to in-person classes

A survey of 1,303 Sumner County teachers last week found that 54.2 percent were either comfortable or very comfortable about returning to school in a traditional in-person setting, according to results released by the school district Tuesday. Of those that were remaining, 29.2 percent said they were uncomfortable while 16.6 percent said they were very uncomfortable.

When asked if they would feel better if masks were mandated for all adults and students aged 13 and older, 39.4 percent of teachers said they would feel more comfortable while 32.3 percent said they would not. Those that remained said they were indifferent.

Sumner County Mayor Anthony Holt issued a countywide order earlier this month mandating face coverings be worn in public through Aug. 3. If the requirement is extended beyond that date, the school system will comply with the order, according to the district. Anyone who is 12 years of age or younger would be exempt from the requirement.

While some school board members said last week that they would like to see face coverings be required when students return to class next month even if there is no countywide mandate, Phillips said Tuesday that the legal opinions he had received were “a little mixed” as to whether districts had the authority under state law.

He added that while masks are “strongly encouraged” to be worn, school officials hope to be able to get better participation from students and employees without a mandate.

“Requiring masks… I just don’t think that’s the way to get a high level of response,” Phillips said. “I just don’t feel like that’s the right thing to do.”

As of Tuesday, there were 1,445 active COVID-19 cases in Sumner County, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Divided by the county's population of 191,283, that means the current infection or spread rate is .75 percent. If it reaches one percent, the district would close school buildings and move from the hybrid schedule to a remote/distance learning format for students.

A decision based on which schedule classes will operate under starting Aug. 14 – minimal, moderate or substantial – is expected to be made sometime the week before, according to school officials.

“If you want your child to come back to school full-time, which is what we all want… please do your part to help bring these numbers down and to contain the spread,” School Board member Betsy Hawkins said Tuesday.

Reporter Tena Lee contributed to this report.

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