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WCS school board approves reopening plan requiring masks on campus

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Jason Golden (copy)

WCS Superintendent Jason Golden shared that the district decided to follow local health authorities’ recommendation to require masks on campus this year.

The Williamson County Board of Education passed the Williamson County Schools Reopening Framework for the 2020-2021 school year, which allows students to learn either on campus or online and will require face coverings except for select circumstances while on campus.

After a six-hour discussion Monday night, the school board voted 11-1 to pass the reopening plan, giving WCS Superintendent Jason Golden the ability to adjust the framework as necessary.

District 6 member Jay Galbreath voted against the plan after introducing an amendment that would allow Golden, in consultation with local health authorities, to “loosen” the mask requirement in the case of low or medium community spread of COVID-19, as defined in the plan.

Galbreath’s amendment failed 5-7 with support from Galbreath himself, District 1 member Angela Durham, District 2 member Dan Cash, District 3 member Eliot Mitchell and District 8 member Candy Emerson.

Families have two options for learning 

The district’s plan allows families to choose two learning options — on-campus learning or online learning. Based on the number of active COVID-19 cases in the county, those who choose on-campus learning may have to switch to remote learning if the spread of the virus surpasses certain thresholds.

According to its plan, the district will operate normally if there are zero COVID-19 positive cases in the county. If there are fewer than 1,192 (0.5% of the population), this is considered “low community spread,” and the district will still allow on-campus learning. If active cases increase to between 0.5% and 1% of the population (“medium community spread”), the district will consult the Williamson County Health Department as well as other state and local health authorities to determine the extent to which it should implement its medium-spread plan, which is as follows: on-campus instruction will continue for grades two and below while grades three through 12 will receive remote instruction.

If active cases exceed 1% of the county’s population, this will trigger “high community spread,” and the district will again consult health authorities concerning its next phase of the plan: all on-campus students would switch to remote learning except for select circumstances, and online students would continue normally.

In previous discussions around the plan, these “trigger points” between each level of spread would automatically cause a shift from one phase of the plan to the next. However, when the district released its final draft last week, it included language to allow more flexibility as school administration has conversations with health experts.

District 10 member Eric Welch shared his gratitude for the staff’s work on the plan and development of these metrics, saying the district had to build the framework essentially from the ground up.

“I know a lot of people out there had issues with the metrics and everything used, so before we get into that, let me say clearly, the reason we — we being Williamson County Schools — are doing this ourselves … is because it was not provided by our federal or state leaders,” he said. “It was left up to us. To be very blunt and frank, no one wanted to step up and take responsibility.”

While many board members voiced their support for many aspects of the plan, Cash said he thinks the numbers used as the “trigger points” between spread levels needed to be higher.

“Our three-pronged program, in my opinion, is a good one, but those numbers are too low,” he said.

He voiced his concern about the mental health effects of keeping students at home, saying depression and anxiety is on the rise, and even his kids are becoming “couch potatoes.”

“There’s nothing that can replace a teacher in the classroom, and we have to put every emphasis on getting these kids in school and keeping them there as long as possible,” he said.

Remote learning is different from online learning 

Leigh Webb, the assistant superintendent of secondary education, and Juli Oyer, the assistant superintendent of elementary schools, shared side-by-side explanations of the on-campus and remote learning structures and the online learning structure.

The two said remote learning will take place when students who have chosen to receive on-campus instruction cannot physically go to school due to a community outbreak of COVID-19 or some other reason. Students engaging in remote learning will receive synchronous instruction, meaning they will follow their typical class schedule in real time virtually through tools like Zoom and Google Classroom.

Online instruction will be primarily asynchronous, meaning that students and teachers will not necessarily be interacting in real time except for designated Zoom sessions. Students who have chosen online instruction for the year will be largely unaffected by community spread of the virus.

View the side-by-side explanations of these learning structures for elementary and secondary schools below.

Board debates mask requirement

Some of the school board members brought up concerns about the face-covering requirement, which has been the subject of debate throughout the community. The plan states that cloth or disposable face coverings must be worn on campus except when it is unsafe for an individual, while eating or drinking, or as instructed by a WCS staff member while maintaining social distance.

Golden said through a recent parent survey he received “probably a few thousand” comments centered on this mask requirement.

“Some families said, ‘I’m not sure if I’m going to come back on campus yet if you don’t require masks.’ Likewise, we had some say the opposite: ‘If you do require masks, I’m not sure I want to come back on campus,’” he said.

He said the district decided to go with the specific recommendation from the health department to require masks.

Emerson shared her concern that, while masks may not be a big deal for some kids, others may “freak out.”

“They’re not going to want to put those masks on, and that is going to impede their ability to walk into a classroom and be so excited to be in school because of a very negative experience in trying to get them to do something that is very fearful for them,” she said.

District 4 member Brad Fiscus said he is pro-mask and added that reversing this recent resurgence of COVID-19 is crucial to getting kids in classrooms.

“We’ve got to take this (seriously) because if we want to be on campus in August, we’re going to have to change the direction, and we’ve got to follow the science and the data,” he said.

District 10 member KC Haugh similarly said the community should do what it can to stop the upward curve.

“To the folks who are not liking the metric, please do what you can to stop this. We’ve got to social distance,” he said.

Mike Fletcher, the safety and security director for WCS, said teachers may choose to take their students outside periodically, where they can social distance without a mask and “take a breather.”

“I really have faith in our teachers to make those determinations in the moment and do it correctly to help the kids through this process,” he said. “No one said this was easy at all, but I trust our folks.”

WCS held four Facebook Live sessions Tuesday to share more information with families, which can be found on the district’s Facebook page. For more information, visit WCS.edu, or read the full reopening plan below.

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