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Coalition of educators, parents offers guidance on how Knox County should proceed with fall classes

Nothing short of the safety and well-being of Knox County schoolchildren is at stake with the fall reopening plan, the Knox County Education Coalition says.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — One day before the school system releases its plan for resuming classes, a group of Knox County community leaders, educators and parents are offering a long list of recommendations on how to proceed.

Nothing less than the safety and well-being of Knox County schoolchildren is at stake in the fall reopening plan, the Knox County Education Coalition says in a release Tuesday.

"The future of all Knox County is at stake. Failure to rise to the occasion will lead to extensive loss of lives, education loss for tens of thousands of children, and vast loss to the local economy. Now is the time for courageous leadership," the group states in its "open letter."

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KCS has said it'll release its plan Wednesday.

It's a stressful time, the coalition writes. Compassion and common sense should be observed as educators make plans to welcome students back to school.

Among the group's many recommendations: ensure the school calendar is flexible to address unexpected events that may arise and forego conducting standardized testing and evaluations this coming school year.

More money also should be spent to ensure KCS does the right thing, the group writes. Local governments should step up and help, they say.

The document is signed by Students,Parents,Educators,Across Knoxville, aka SPEAK; Advocates for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; the Knox Chapter of the NAACP; Stop School PushOut; Knox County Educators Association; Kindred Futures; Latino Students Success Coalition; and Allies of Knoxville Immigrate Neighbors.

Steps they're recommending:

*All students, teachers, and staff should wear face coverings or masks on buses and inside buildings, except in situations expressly approved by the Knox County’s Senior Director and Public Health Officer.

*KCS must provide sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and students. The schools must provide plentiful cleaning solutions, disinfectant wipes and hand cleaning supplies for classrooms. Neither teachers nor parents should be asked to provide these essential supplies.

*Health checks, including temperatures, should be performed daily for all students and all staff before entering school buildings.

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*KCS should use school security staff and/or hire personnel to perform health checks. Neither instructional staff, school nurses, counselors, nor social workers should be given these tasks as they will already have more than enough responsibilities.

*KCS should assure that there is one full-time nurse in every school, at least 1 full-time nurse per 750 students in larger schools.

*KCS should provide at least one social worker in every school, and one school counselor for every 250 students.

*KCS must accommodate all employees who cannot work on site for health reasons so that they continue to be employed without penalty.

*KCS should allow faculty and other staff to participate in meetings remotely rather than in person at their discretion.

*KCS employees should not be expected to use earned sick days as a result of COVID-19 whether it is due to employee quarantine or sickness.

*The school calendar and daily schedule should be flexible to allow schools to meet changing needs during the pandemic.

*KCS must assure that all communications to families and staff will be sent in a timely manner and will be available in all languages spoken by Knox County students and families.

*There should be no yearly standardized tests, no portfolios, and no formal evaluations in the 2020-21 school year.

*In the event that schools have to be closed or be opened on reduced hours, Knox County, and the Cities of Knoxville and Farragut should take responsibility for assuring that every school child whose parents have to work outside the home has a safe place to stay during normal school hours. KCS is far too underfunded to assume this responsibility without significantly increased funding.

*In the event that the district, specific schools or individual students find it necessary to continue their education remotely, Knox County must provide access to high quality internet service at no cost to the family or a safe and convenient place from which to engage with their teachers. KCS must be fully transparent about exactly where adequate internet access is not available and what alternative arrangement has been made.

*KCS must make clear whether classroom teachers will be responsible for online instruction of students assigned to them who cannot or do not attend school in person due to the pandemic. KCS must make realistic plans for who is responsible for their instruction, assuring that sufficient staff are assigned to both in-person and remote instruction.

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*KCS must inform every parent of a child with disabilities that the school district is obliged to fully implement the child’s IEP, including providing any and all services and supports provided for in the IEP—even if the child is distance learning.

*Whenever it is acceptable to the parents, KCS should continue the practice of holding virtual IEP meetings through Zoom or conference calls to ensure safe and effective school and parent participation when considering the individual needs of students with disabilities in our district.

*KCS must provide supports for ELL students and families that speak languages other than English at home to ensure their ability to understand changes in the educational process and participate fully in distance learning.

*Integrating 1:1 devices into K-12 classes effectively is a complex process; it will take years and much experience to learn how to use these devices most effectively. Especially the first year, adequate time must be built into the calendar for learning to use these tools in the educational setting.

*To assure that the district learns from from the experience of using 1:1 devices in and out of the classroom, KCS should establish a permanent review committee made up of teachers, parents, and students devoted to working on training, shared experiences, and practical advice which will support the most effective and efficient use of our 1:1 devices in the educational setting. Meetings should be open to the public and should welcome students, parents and teachers to share their experiences.

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A task force spent several weeks reviewing feedback on next steps for county schools. Surveys also were gathered.

After COVID-19 began to spread across Tennessee in March, KCS and other systems in the state closed physical schools and shifted to online learning. The process left many parents and teachers unsatisfied by the time the school year formally ended in May.

Area school districts across the region are right now weighing their options and announcing their strategies for resuming classes in the coming weeks.

Many say they want students back in actual classrooms but will offer a back-up virtual learning experience if parents are fearful their children could be exposed to the virus.