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Families brace for impact of new school year amidst pandemic

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School Choice Rally

Williamson County Schools and Franklin Special School District students head back to class Friday, but most won’t be on campus.

Instead, third through 12th graders will begin the first two weeks of the school year remotely, under the school district’s guidelines for medium spread of COVID-19, a designation set at .50% or greater, while pre-kindergartners through second grade will begin in-person.

As of Thursday afternoon, the community’s rate of transmission was hovering at the .50% threshold. Even if the percentage dips into the “low” transmission zone, WCS Communications Director Carol Birdsong said the district will still begin the first two weeks of school remotely.

Though they know it will be a school year like none before, many families are trying to keep a positive outlook.

“I’m kind of hoping for the best,” said Spring Hill resident Richard Brozda, who has three daughters in WCS. “I do have faith that they’re making every effort they can to get as much learning done as possible.”

He appreciates the school’s guidance, but expressed frustration with the end to the last school year.

Brozda’s middle daughter is on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum.

“She went from having services on her IEP [Individual Education Plan] to nothing,” he said.

He is happy she’ll get to begin in-person schooling, but nervous for his oldest daughter, who will start her first year at Spring Station Middle School remotely.

“There are people who aren’t as fortunate as us,” said Brozda, pointing to his parents who have helped he and his wife with the children.

A regional catering manager for Chuy’s, Brozda noted some on his staff who have cut back their hours to better care for their children.

“How do you deal if you’re a single parent and you’ve got two or three kids at home and you have to work?” he asked.

Learning pods

For some families, remote learning for what could potentially be the majority of the year is a poor option.

While some county parents are protesting for the right to have their children back in the classroom, many are also weighing their options.

In “Back To School – Williamson County,” a private Facebook group with more than 4,200 members, learning ‘pods’ is an idea that’s gaining traction.

Jessica Morreale, a former schoolteacher from New York, taught with FSSD and WCS before leaving last year to retire and work with her daughter, who has a learning disability.

“I quickly realized how much I missed teaching when I was just home working with my daughter,” said Morreale, a Franklin resident. So she began running a tutoring group out of her home.

When the pandemic hit, Morreale was able to pool her resources and help her pupils finish their school year.

The former New Yorker said she was “aware of what was coming,” and started brainstorming how to serve the various needs of students whose families needed to self-isolate or simply have their children cared for while learning.

Now, Morreale is beginning the school year at her “Learning Cottage,” providing educational assistance and supervision within the framework of the school system for children from five families. To minimize risk, her pupils aren’t allowed to participate in contact sports and must remain with her online for the entire semester.

She has updated her home with a HEPA air purifier, duct cleaning, using a UV light to disinfect, and other safety measures to ensure it will be as healthy as possible for the students from five families.

“None of us know what this is really going to look like,” she said. “I don’t judge anybody, I’m just trying to use what I have to help those who could use it.

“They’re pretty much rolling with it.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Lisa Salmon picked up school supplies for her oldest son, Peter, a senior at Ravenwood High School.

“I listened to Jason Golden the day that he made the decision about what was going to happen the first day of school,” she explained.

“I was really happy he not only mentioned the case count, but the hospital situation,” she said, pointing to Williamson Medical Center’s recent halts on elective surgeries due to COVID-19 patient counts rising.

Salmon has six children, from kindergarten through 12th grade. Her kindergartner and second grader will begin school in Brentwood in the coming weeks, while her other four children start from home.

While Peter has three on-campus classes, Salmon’s 10th grader made the decision to stay remote for the year.

“He has asthma, and he just didn’t feel confident that the other kids would follow the rules,” she said.

Both Salmon and her husband have the ability to work from home, and they have homeschooled their kids in the past.

“They’re all very conscientious students,” Salmon said. “A lot of those extra tasks don’t seem as burdensome to us.”

Acknowledging the changes that will likely be with them a while, Salmon said her kids have adapted well.

“They’re pretty much rolling with it,” she said. “It’s not forever.”

Concern for the future

Whether they are ready for their children to be back in the classroom or not, parents expressed concern for what will happen when coronavirus cases inevitably begin popping up in the schools.

During a Tuesday protest for students to be allowed in-person learning, parents spoke of their fears that children would eventually return to school, only to be sent home when cases rise.

Nolensville mother Kelly Jackson urged the school board to adopt Gov. Bill Lee’s recommendations that all schools allow students to return to in-person learning, a statement that elicited whoops of approval from those gathered.

“I think that’s the biggest concern parents have right now, is right when they get settled after two weeks, uh uh oh, the cases will go up and then they’re going to yank our kids out of school,” Jackson said. “That is not how is should be done and it is why the state is strongly discouraging it.

Others are not so confident in the state’s plan, which was released on July 28, long after WCS detailed their own guidelines.

“To me, the governor has kind of abdicated leadership,” Brozda said. “That has been the most disheartening, is there doesn’t seem to be a consistent messaging from the state.”

He’s worried there isn’t enough of a plan of response for when someone is diagnosed with coronavirus.

“I hope they get it right,” Brozda said. “I want everyone to wear a mask so I can get my kids back at school.”

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