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State education department releases planning framework for schools

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Penny Schwinn Department of Education Commissioner TN

Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn

The Tennessee Department of Education released a rough framework Monday for different scenarios that school districts across the state should consider planning for concerning the return of school in the fall.

Jay Klein, the director of legislative affairs for the state education department, shared in an email to Tennessee legislators that the department expects that local school districts will implement fall semester plans unique to their situations.

“Throughout all of this, the department has worked diligently to support district efforts to serve students, answer questions as they arrive, and partner with Directors as they make the best decisions for their districts,” Klein wrote. “In that same collaborative spirit, the department is releasing a comprehensive toolkit on reopening strategies and resources for our districts. Just as COVID-19 has impacted each community differently, we expect each district's reopening strategy to be unique.”

In the 40-page document, the education department explores some of the needs and challenges of school districts during this time, and Penny Schwinn, the commissioner of the state education department, lists four areas of focus for local districts moving forward: early literacy, achievement gaps, rural communities (particularly broadband and technology support), and mental health.

“The pandemic has elevated known gaps and we must accelerate a child-centered strategy,” Schwinn wrote. “In some cases, these are new challenges that we must face together. In others, they are challenges that have existed over decades and are now rapidly accelerating in greater public awareness and urgency.”

The document states that its contents are not mandatory for implementation but are meant to guide local districts as they plan for the fall. It outlines four possible scenarios for local district planning — all students on campus, all students engaged in distance learning, blended on-campus and virtual learning, and intermittent virtual learning.

For full on-campus learning, the document presents four options: a traditional return, in which schools operate normally with a plan to switch to a different model if needed; a staggered return, in which students return in phases leading up to full capacity; staggered schedules, in which some students may start the day early and end early while others will start and end late; and year-round school, in which students may be split into four groups with one group consistently out of school, allowing for 75% capacity at all times.

For distance learning, the document outlines a full-time option, where students would engage in a typical school day online, and a self-paced option, which would likely involve more self-guided packets with virtual teacher support.

The state mentioned in the document that the Tennessee Board of Education will devise and vote on a distance learning policy and, as of now, does not plan to waive the 180-day school year requirement but will provide updates through its regular meetings.

For the blended school model, the state suggests planning for split days, with students attending a half-day on campus and a half-day virtually; alternating days, where a group of students would be on campus three days one week and then the other two days the following week with virtual school in between; or need-based on-campus schooling, where only students with the greatest need would be instructed in person.

Finally, the intermittent category is recommended either on an emergency basis, where virtual school is used only amid an outbreak, or by choice, where families and staff members can choose the schooling option — on-campus or virtual — that they are most comfortable with. 

WCS and FSSD planning framework 

While the Williamson County School District and Franklin Special School District have not yet responded specifically to the state’s planning recommendations, each district’s framework contains several components of the state’s guidelines.

WCS is currently drafting plans for three different scenarios: on-campus school, virtual school, and hybrid school.

For on-campus school, the district’s planning framework suggests that cafeteria, recess, class transition and assembly schedules may be staggered or adjusted. For remote school, the district plans to find a solution for families without internet access, ensure daily student engagement and devise a plan for the School Age Child Care program, food service and school counseling.

The plan for a hybrid model would be a combination of protocols from both the on-campus plan and virtual plan. Details have not yet been announced, but readers can view the full planning framework from WCS below.

For FSSD, Director of Schools David Snowden shared that the district is also planning for those same three scenarios. However, he shared a bit more detail on FSSD’s hybrid plan, saying the district is looking into the possibility of having half of its students on campus on Mondays and Wednesdays and half on Tuesdays and Thursdays, leaving Friday as a planning day.

State adds to education strategic plan

The state’s document also provides some additions to the education department’s “Best for All” strategic plan, released in November. The strategic plan identifies three main areas of focus — academics, the whole child, and educators — along with an overarching goal of school improvement. This recent document adds several priorities to the existing list. In terms of big-picture goals, the document adds digital infrastructure and innovation grants to the list of needs.

TN Department of Education Best for All Strategic Plan Additions

The Tennessee Department of Education released several additions to its "Best for All" strategic plan, which was released in November.

For academics, the document adds a focus on online tools and the state’s PBS video partnership. For the whole child, the recent additions include a focus on safe school nutrition plans amid the pandemic and additional career exploration and counseling resources. For educators, digital badging is listed as one area for improvement.

For more information about the state’s “Best for All” strategic plan, visit tn.gov/education/about-tdoe/best-for-all-strategic-plan.html. Read the full 40-page document released by the Tennessee Department of Education below.

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