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Hamblen County Schools delay reopening

"We don't think that the peak of the virus has hit yet in Hamblen County," said Jeff Perry, Hamblen Co. Schools superintendent
Published: Jul. 24, 2020 at 9:53 AM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - In a letter addressed to parents, Hamblen County Schools superintendent, Jeff Perry announced the reopening date for schools has been delayed until September 8.

Perry cited statistics that rank Hamblen County among the top 15 counties with the highest COVID-19 infection rates.

Parents like Christy Cowan have been preparing for another month and a half at home. But she’s grateful schools have been delayed.

“I think it’s a really good idea,” said Cowan.

Cowan has two daughters in Hamblen County Schools.

“I feel like the school district has been paying attention to the numbers as they’ve been going up,” explained Cowan.

The Tennessee Department of Health data showed Hamblen County has the third most COVID-19 cases in the East Tennessee counties WVLT covers. The number of cases followed Knox and Sevier counties.

School Superintendent Dr. Jeff Perry, said he wants kids in school, but wants safety first.

“We believe that kids should be back in school,” said Perry, “We believe that we need to provide those educational services and as a school district we’re going to do that as soon as I feel that is safe to do so.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said “Schools are an important part of the infrastructure of communities and play a critical role in supporting the whole child, not just their academic achievement.”

“We don’t think that the peak of the virus has hit yet in Hamblen County,” said Perry, “We will go back to school, and we’re going to have a full school year, that is our plan.”

Dr. Perry said parents have turned to virtual options as a way to keep their families safe.

J”Probably 20-some percent of our students, who as of yesterday, were looking at the online option,” said Dr. Perry.

It’s an option Cowan picked for her 5th and 7th graders. She knows there there will be struggles, but it’s worth keeping her family safe.

“My biggest concern for us moving forward, in our household in terms of school, is just making sure they have that structure and that we’re sticking to it,” explained Cowan, “A lot of us our caregivers for grandparents, certainly for kids and just the idea of exposing people to something without knowing that we’re exposing them to this virus, is really scary.”

Her kids weren’t happy.

“When we told them, we were going to do online, at least through December, they were disappointed,” said Cowan.

But safety is number one for her.

“I’m sure that the leadership took this decision really hard and they did as much as they could and I respect that,” said Cowan.

Additionally, Perry said multiple staff members could not report to school due to direct COVID-19 exposure. He said he expects several of those employees to test positive for the virus.

Read the full letter below:

We have monitored a number of data points over the last several weeks to ensure we could reopen in a safe and responsible manner. There are several current factors which are concerning to us. First, we have been closely monitoring the sharp increase in positive COVID-19 cases throughout Hamblen County over the last several weeks. On Thursday, we saw an additional 50 positive cases documented. We are now within the top 15 counties with the highest infection rate.

Second, we have also been closely monitoring the health conditions of our own staff members. A significant number of employees have been directly exposed to someone in their immediate family which may necessitate a 10- to 14-day isolation period. These exposures have occurred over the last few days, and we anticipate several staff members may prove to be positive.

Third, we have monitored the teacher/student ratios and have discovered that many classrooms are still in excess of 20:1 despite all of our efforts. We are concerned this ratio is too high and will not allow us to maintain appropriate social distancing within the classroom. We are concerned that we could not protect the safety of staff and students under these ratios and the high infection rate.

Finally, we currently do not have enough computers to provide each student with a laptop if we decided to go online. The computers are scheduled to be here at the end of August, but we do not have enough to go fully online at this time. It is important to note that these computers have been ordered for a long period of time, but the virus and increased demand has significantly increased the production/delivery time.

For these reasons, we have decided to postpone the opening of school until after Labor Day. Our first day of school will be September 8. We made the decision to open after Labor Day because this would be the first day that we could realistically provide most of our students with the new computers and could implement a district-wide online program. We will make the decision whether we go fully online, fully in class, or utilize a hybrid model later in August.

This will significantly affect our school calendar. We fully understand that many individuals would recommend an earlier starting date. It is our belief the impact of the virus has not peaked yet. We need to be fully prepared to return to school with all students ready for online instruction on September 8 if necessary. We will work with the staff and community to create a revised calendar for the 2020–21 school year.

We will create an expanded ESP program to help working parents return to the labor force. We will reopen ESP on August 3. We are currently working with various agencies to provide an extremely affordable daycare program for our workforce. We believe that ESP will have smaller numbers and that we can create a safe working environment.

There will be a multitude of questions that parents may have. We will provide answers to those questions over the next several days. We fully understand this change will create a number of problems for families and we sincerely apologize for the inconveniences this may cause. You may email Mrs. Karlene Webb, and we will answer those questions in our next update. We really attempted to keep us on schedule, but I just did not think we could keep everyone safe under these new conditions.

Jeff Perry, Superintendent

If parents, teachers or staff have questions they can email Karlene Webb, Dr. Perry’s administrative assistant, at webbk@hcboe.net. On a weekly basis the school staff will send out a Frequently Asked Questions email compiling information to be shared with everyone.

Copyright 2020 WVLT. All rights reserved.

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