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KCS meets for regular meeting with few COVID-19 safety measures on agenda, after state recommends changes

KCS leaders called a special meeting on Sept. 1 to discuss implementing COVID-19 safety measures. A new attendance policy is set to be voted on from that meeting.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — UPDATE (6 p.m.): Educators passed a new attendance policy that will give students a chance to be counted as present if they are placed in quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19.

The policy allows students to complete work online while at home, submitting hard copies or virtually. Officials said they would also be able to provide more descriptive COVID-19 data with the policy since students at home but still participating in class will be counted differently than students who are just present or absent.

“There is no replacement for a student being in a teacher every day, but it is better to have asynchronous assignments tied to lessons than to have nothing for ten days," officials said during the meeting.

Officials also discussed creating a shared pool of learning materials for teachers, so they can more easily plan asynchronous materials for students who are out due to COVID-19.

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Leaders with Knox County Schools were set to meet for their regular meeting on Sept. 8, after they called a special meeting the week before to discuss implementing COVID-19 safety measures.

Only a new absence policy for students will be voted on from that meeting. It will allow students to stay home if they are quarantined or placed under isolation orders due to COVID-19. While at home, they will have a chance to complete materials and be counted as present in class.

Teachers had a week to prepare learning materials for students before the policy would go into effect. Members of the board said they were confident it would pass on Sept. 1, but some said they were worried about overworking teachers.

"Teachers have been told everything is normal, and they are extremely distressed to suddenly be changing everything they were doing," said Jennifer Owen during the Sept. 1 meeting.

A proposal for a universal mask mandate is not on the agenda after it was voted down during the last special meeting.

Two Knox County schools were moved to virtual learning after a significant rise in COVID-19 cases and a lack of educators available to fill in. Austin-East Magnet High School and Central High School started virtual learning after the Tennessee Department of Education approved the decision.

State officials also recommended changes to the district's COVID-19 policies, citing parent concerns they have received. Specifically, state leaders recommend the following:

  • The same or enhanced mitigation strategies used last school year such as temperature checks, physical distancing, frequent handwashing, etc.
  • Seating charts in all settings, including classrooms, cafeteria/meals, bus routes, etc.
  • Proactively stocking non-perishable items for breakfasts/lunches to account for meal staff absences
  • Cohorting students to limit close contacts
  • The consideration of masking

A group of parents and advocates also said they would gather for a rally outside the meeting, calling for leaders to adhere to an earlier vote in April. During that meeting, they said they would follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The group says parents had to choose whether students would attend school in person or participate in virtual learning based on that decision. The CDC later recommended wearing masks in schools, regardless of vaccination status.

They say education leaders should adhere to their vote by enacting more COVID-19 safety measures. However, education leaders said they don't have the power to require masks in schools.

Several members of the community have expressed frustration and ire with the board's decisions in the past month.

Much of the agenda for Wednesday's meeting involves regular duties such as contracts for facility work and grants from different programs. They are also expected to approve a new policy required by state lawmakers requiring students to provide a birth certificate if they request bathroom accommodations.

The meeting will start at 5 p.m. in the main assembly room of the City-County Building.

Watch the meeting live here: