The Williamson County Schools Board of Education held its first work session of the school year on Thursday and spent over two hours discussing the start of school, which has many more moving parts than usual.
This came one day before WCS Superintendent Jason Golden is slated to announce what the next few weeks will look like for schools in terms of on-campus or remote learning, and Golden said bringing one or more additional grades on campus is a “real consideration.”
Last week, the day before students’ official start, families who had chosen the WCS Online learning option received an email saying the online start date would be delayed by a week.
One day before online students officially begin, Leigh Webb, the assistant superintendent of secondary schools, shared the online program represents the largest “school” in the district with over 6,700 students enrolled. She explained staff had to be moved around to accommodate this large number of students and that the district is still working on the communication process.
“We didn’t have enough staff prepared to give quick, WCS-quality feedback to everyone,” she said, adding that the district received over 1,700 emails in one day after the announcement of the delay.
Webb said the deadline for families to commit to online school in the spring will likely fall around the end of September or beginning of October.
Golden said the district also has some other staffing concerns. While teacher resignations have been relatively few considering the pandemic, he said classified positions, particularly teacher assistants, are in worse shape.
The majority of students have already begun the school year remotely, as students in grades three through 12 who were slated to be on campus have set up at home due to the number of active cases in the county. Webb said she is “elated” by how remote learning is going so far.
“We’re super proud of our teachers, and we know how stressful it’s been for families, how stressful it’s been for students and, in particular, teachers being prepared to start this school year in a nontraditional way and trying to deliver some traditional instruction,” she said.
Remote students will engage in asynchronous learning Friday to provide a break from Zoom sessions and screen time. Webb shared that this week students have been spending more time behind a computer screen than they normally would have to because teachers and classmates are building relationships and working through technological issues.
Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Schools Juli Oyer said elementary students engaging with teachers online have experienced some technical struggles, but she’s amazed by the systems teachers have established for the younger students and by the students’ and teachers’ perseverance when it comes to technology troubles.
Additionally, she said she’s seen a “consistent level of compliance” with the mask mandate among the youngest students on campus. She added these students are able to take “mask breaks” outside, and the playgrounds are open, which has been a “game-changer” for some.
Oyer also said there is a higher percentage of students riding in cars to school rather than buses.
Dave Allen, executive director of secondary schools, said the district has encouraged teachers to grade based on mastery of subjects rather than strictly based on homework, attendance and other similar factors.
“Mastery of standards is so much more important now than it ever has been,” he said. “If it takes students a little longer to show you that they’ve mastered the standard, let them take a little longer.”
District 6 board member Jay Galbreath expressed concern about the metric used, in tandem with conversations with the health department, to determine on-campus school versus remote learning. He asked about the validity of the active case numbers reported by the Tennessee Department of Health.
District 2 board member Dan Cash also advocated for families who are struggling at home and want to be back in the classroom. He said people are stressed about technology among other things, and Galbreath mentioned mental health is a major concern among students and parents as well.
“I applaud you guys, the staff and everyone, for working so diligently on this, but these are real issues, too, on the other side. They’re not just complaints,” Cash said.
Golden shared that while active cases are a factor in determining on-campus or remote learning as is outlined in the board-approved reopening plan, “trends are more important than specific, day-to-day numbers.” He said the district has had in-depth conversations with the health department about how active case numbers are determined and updated and about contact tracing, reiterating that the district’s goal is to get students “sustainably” back on campus.
“I don’t know that I can satisfy everyone with this, but what I can do is do the best we can with the information we have,” Golden said.
District 10 board member Eric Welch defended the reopening plan, saying it should be based on professional, medical advice, not solely public opinion.
“Is there anyone here that doesn’t want kids back in the classroom? I think we’re all in agreement with that,” Welch said. “But we have to do it in a way that’s safe and sustainable.”
He said the district also has to protect teachers, who may be at higher risk in terms of health than students.
Golden said he plans to announce what the next few weeks will look like for families on Friday, and adding other grades to the on-campus group is a “real consideration.”
District 12 board member Nancy Garrett said she has received many emails, some in support of the metric and some against it. She said many opted into the on-campus/remote option in order to follow the metric.
“We are a divided community over this issue,” she said. “That’s a really challenging time to lead. This is a challenging time for us.”
For more information, visit WCS.edu.