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School board discusses COVID-19 impact

11 WCS schools have virus-related closures

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Jason Golden (copy)

WCS Superintendent Jason Golden speaks at a meeting in 2019.

The Williamson County Schools Board of Education met for its monthly work session Thursday, appropriately spending a large chunk of time talking about COVID-19 impacts and future plans as eleven schools currently have full or partial closures due to the virus.

Most recently, the district reported that as of 11 a.m. Monday, 138 students and 41 staff members were in isolation due to a positive test, and 2,305 students and 118 staff members in quarantine due to close contact with a positive case.

Brentwood and Centennial high schools spent part of last week in remote learning, and this week, while Centennial returned to campus, Brentwood High in addition to Franklin High, Nolensville High, Ravenwood High, Summit High, Brentwood Middle, Fairview Middle, sixth-graders at Heritage Middle and third- through fifth-graders at Westwood Elementary spent all or some of the week remotely.

District 9 board member Rick Wimberly shared on social media Thursday that Longview Elementary and a class and early childhood at Jordan Elementary have also gone remote. He shared that Franklin High, Ravenwood High, Brentwood Middle and a class at Jordan Elementary will all continue remote learning through Thanksgiving break. The district will report updated COVID-19 numbers on Tuesday.

WCS Superintendent Jason Golden shared that he is concerned about how the upcoming holidays will impact the spread of COVID-19. He said the district saw spikes in cases following both fall break and Halloween. Wimberly said perhaps the district should be more “aggressive” in its decisions to close schools or grade levels.

“We may have to bite the bullet in some cases in order to get the semester done and get into the next semester,” he said.

District 6 board member Jay Galbreath said he would like to receive data from the health department on how many quarantined students and staff contract the virus, as this would better show if the spread is occurring primarily within our outside of the schools. However, Golden said the health department told him they were concerned about the reliability of that data, saying that those in quarantine could not get tested, not report their illness, get the virus from elsewhere, etc.

Golden and Executive Director of COVID Response Gary Anderson shared that the schools will start giving students a heads-up that they may have been in close contact with a positive case ahead of the health department’s notification. Because the district provides certain data to the health department to help with contact tracing, while the schools cannot officially initiate quarantine, they may be able to notify students of potential exposure sooner than the health department, allowing students to voluntarily quarantine to further mitigate the spread of the virus.

“We are experiencing some time gap between when we find out someone is a positive COVID person and then the difference between quarantining,” Anderson said. “We put together a letter to send out to try to help fix that gap a little bit to let people know that we cannot determine the quarantine but that they were in somewhat close proximity.”

Anderson said this is particularly important for students who may have close family members who are more vulnerable to the virus.

Currently, the county’s confirmed active cases represent 0.488% of the county’s population, and the district’s cases represent about 16% of the total county cases. Golden said that the district has found “a lot of wisdom” in having conversations about remote learning on a school-by-school basis.

According to the WCS reopening plan passed over the summer, if the county cases reach 0.5% of the population, a conversation about transitioning all schools to remote learning is triggered. Golden said that is not out of the question, but the district isn’t at that point yet.

He said he’s concerned about the state of COVID-19 in January and February and said the district is considering having high schools split into groups that will stagger their on-campus schedules, going back and forth between remote and in-person learning. He said this would be piloted at one school before implementation is considered.

“We know that we lose some students when we’re long-term remote,” said Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools Leigh Webb. “We have some students who certainly struggle engaging with the curriculum, so we’re talking about the pros and cons of having those students on campus those two days.”

Assistant Superintendent for Operations Mark Samuels clarified for families that their students can receive meals from the school on any operating day, including flex days for students, remote learning days and quarantine days.

The board discussed several notable voting items for Monday’s meeting, including a $250,000 allotment for a traffic light at Independence High School, next year’s school calendar including a full week of fall break for students, the updated five-year capital plan including about $100.3 million in projects for the 2021–2022 year and a potential bump in pay for substitute teachers.

Currently, uncertified substitutes make anywhere from $70 to $95 per day, depending on their education level and the number of days spent teaching that year, and certified substitutes make $90 to $100, depending on the number of days spent teaching. The district proposed a bump to a $100 to $120 range for uncertified substitutes and a $120 to $140 range for certified substitutes.

Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Vickie Hall shared that the district is currently seeing around 175 teacher absences per day in addition to about 40 teaching via Zoom while quarantining at home. Hall said many teachers work from home while quarantining, but an adult still must be present with students in the classroom, so staffing is still an issue in these cases.

District 2 board member Dan Cash shared that he doesn’t believe the district proposed enough of a pay increase for substitutes.

“I think these people — these folks that we really need to come in — need more incentive than this,” he said. “We spend a lot of money on different things. … In this case, substitute teachers are essential. We cannot run schools without staff.”

Galbreath and District 3 member Eliot Mitchell both agreed that the district should consider, even within a tight budget this year, the possibility of further increasing substitute pay. Golden said he will have a conversation with staff about this possibility ahead of Monday’s board meeting.

The board will convene its November meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Monday. For more information and to view Monday’s meeting online, visit WCS.edu.

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