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Austin-East High School, Central High School move to virtual learning amid rising COVID-19 cases

The two high schools will have online learning from Sept. 7 through Sept. 10 after the state gave Knox County Schools authorization to move to virtual learning.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — NOTE: A teacher who spoke with WBIR said they wanted to be anonymous out of fear of repercussions.

Knox County Schools announced Saturday that Austin-East Magnet High School and Central High School will move to online learning from Sept. 7 through Sept. 10.  

Unless otherwise notified, Austin-East and Central students will return to in-person learning on Monday, Sept. 13, according to KCS.

While the schools are in online learning, students should log in to their Chromebooks for synchronous class meetings that follow their daily schedule, KCS said.

All extracurricular and athletics activities at the schools are canceled for the week "per the Tennessee Department of Education," KCS said.  

Education leaders said they received authorization to move to virtual learning from the state, but emphasized that the entire district could not move to virtual. Instead, individual schools must move to virtual learning. The district must also document their need to move to virtual learning, detailing the impact of COVID-19 on schools.

They said they asked the state for authorization on Friday and did not receive a response from the Tennessee Department of Education until Saturday. The waiver is only valid for seven calendar days.

Both Austin-East High School and Central High School have had high levels of student and staff absences, officials said. They also said there were many unfilled substitute positions in the schools.

According to documents obtained from the state, 22 staff members from Austin-East were in quarantine or isolation with 21 of those positions unfilled. The district also reported an average of more than 160 students were absent in a week.

At Central, of the 31 staff members who were out, 26 of their positions were unfilled, according to the documents. KCS reported more than 300 students on average were absent in a week.

The documents showed teachers were covering classes on their planning periods, administrators were helping and many classes were combined in common spaces "to maintain some level of learning." Central Office staff also reportedly had been sent to help fill substitute positions at the schools.

The Department of Education recommended changes to the district's COVID-19 policies, citing the parent concerns it has received. 

It specifically recommended the following for all districts:

  • 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

One Central High teacher said it was frustrating to be notified at the same time as students and parents about the changes.

The teacher said they were told to enjoy the holiday weekend, visit family and take care of one another. Instead, teachers have to plan entirely different instructions for next week. Now, the teacher is asking for grace and support through this quick transition.

They said they are worried leaders in Knox County Schools are apathetic towards the wellbeing of teachers. Ultimately, they said, teachers are the ones who are working the closest with children and said it is expected they to make officials' plans happen.