FROM THE DIRECTOR'S OFFICE
July 22, 2020
I wanted to follow-up yesterday’s announcement of a two-week staggered attendance schedule for grades 4-12 and share more information about the decision making process and rationale behind the change. There are many voices who have strong opinions on everything related to COVID and school operations. Last night alone, we heard from K-3 parents upset that the elementary kids weren’t on a staggered attendance schedule; 4-12 families frustrated that their children were not going to school daily and 4-12 families who thought a staggered start wasn’t enough – we should go digital or delay the start of school. The adage that you can’t please everyone has never rung truer. There is no perfect answer.
I do not take the decision to change school operations lightly. I fully understand how any deviation from the regular school schedule impacts families. It is the primary reason that we no longer have half days in our school calendar, and why we try to go to school during inclement weather. Decisions are made only after much deliberation, consideration, and consultation with the Advisory Team.
In an effort to be transparent, I have provided additional information below surrounding the decision-making process, metrics used, and reasons for differentiating our approach for younger children.
As previously communicated, the primary metrics driving the decision to take more restrictive actions include:
- Attendance rates of staff and students
- New case counts in Blount County (i.e., 14 day average number of new cases per 100,000 residents)
- Active cases in Blount County (represented as a percent of the total county population)
The decision to move to more restrictive options will be based on a holistic view of the data, and in collaboration with an MCS COVID-19 Advisory Team consisting of medical professionals. Of course, we only have (2) and (3) available heading into the school year. We have been tracking those two measures all summer. I think it is important that we take a holistic view and not lock ourselves into a single measure. We could see a spike in the number of new and active cases due to an outbreak at one of our plants or nursing home. That would likely have little impact on our schools.
The number of active cases is provided by the BCHD each day and also appears in the newspaper. As of 3:00 p.m. yesterday, we had 249 active cases which is about 0.2% of the county population.
For the new case count measure, we are following the thresholds established by the Harvard Global Health Institute (https://globalepidemics.org/key-metrics-for-covid-suppression/) shown below. Our 14-day average new cases for 100,000 residents can be found on the TDH epi curve site (https://www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov/data/epi-curves.html). As of this morning, we are at 17.77 which puts in the accelerated spread category.
RATIONALE FOR THE CHANGES
As detailed in the update yesterday (available at this link), students in grades 4-12 will adhere to a staggered attendance model for the first two full weeks of school. Based on the metrics noted above and guidance from our medical advisory team, the staggered attendance model greatly limits the number of students on campus at any time, while giving them in-person access to a teacher on a regular basis. This will allow for social distancing in the classroom, fewer students in large gathering areas, and fewer students on buses. The greatest opportunity to continue annual growth and cover all the standards needed for students to advance to the next grade level comes from classroom instruction - as often as possible.
We will likely keep the lower grade levels paced one step behind the upper grades as we employ more restrictive models. That’s our rationale for opening school with K-3 attending each day. This strategy is used in many districts in the U.S. and abroad. There are several reasons this approach is appealing:
- Scientific basis - There still appears to be much debate in the scientific community about the role students play in the COVID pandemic. However, all seem to agree that there is a difference in rate of infection and ability to spread between younger kids and their older counterparts.
- Instructionally - Older students have much more success with digital instruction. They are able to work independently.
- Relationships - The relationship between students and adults is critical at all levels, but especially in the younger grades. Daily face-to-face interactions between teachers and children are such a vital part of the elementary school experience.
- School Environment - We can reduce the impact of a confirmed case in the younger grades by reducing cohort size and avoid the mixing of groups. That is not a realistic strategy in the upper grades.
- Childcare - One reason for the push to open schools nationwide is to help reopen the economy. Staggered attendance in the lower grades is almost as much of a burden on working families as a complete school shutdown.
I have formed an MCS COVID-19 Advisory Team consisting of six individuals from our local medical community. I will use them as a resource throughout the year to help guide my decision regarding school operations. I intend to keep their names confidential and out of the spotlight. The decision to open or close schools and the accompanying responsibility falls on my shoulders. The passion surrounding COVID-19 is great, and both sides have demonstrated some frustration and anger. Every action taken will be praised by some and negatively blasted by others. I am grateful for their support and guidance, but I will fully protect their anonymity. My Advisory Team has reviewed the criteria and content in the above plans and provided feedback to guide our steps.