Metro Nashville Public Schools is shifting about 17,300 elementary and exceptional education students back to virtual learning after the Thanksgiving holiday break.
The district made the announcement Monday night, citing a surge in daily coronavirus cases in Davidson County and statewide. It means elementary and exceptional education students who had been reporting in person will shift to virtual learning starting Nov. 30 and will remain in online classes until at least the start of the winter break Dec. 17.
“Our transmission rate, new cases per 100,000 residents, and seven-day positivity rate are at their highest points in months, and the situation may only be getting worse,” said Dr. Adrienne Battle, the district’s superintendent. “This is a serious and dramatic public health emergency that requires us all to renew our vigilance.”
Tennessee reported a record-breaking number of new COVID-19 cases this month, and, the Tennessee Supreme Court suspended all jury trials through Jan. 31. Health care officials have also suspended elective procedures due to climbing hospitalizations.
Metro Schools originally planned to provide an in-person learning option for all its students in January. Those efforts were sidelined when the district rolled back plans to bring back middle schoolers to classrooms in October.
Now, while the students reverting back to all-virtual learning are only doing so through the start of winter break, the possibility that most students won’t return until several months after January isn’t farfetched.
There is also a strong likelihood, based on current trends, that high schoolers won’t return to in-person classes at all.
The Metro Public Health Department, last week, also recommended that Davidson County schools temporarily suspend indoor extracurricular activities. Nashville leaders have also made the call to limit small gatherings to eight people.
Many teachers prefer virtual learning
According to a survey conducted by the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, 75% of surveyed educators said they want Metro Schools to revert back to all-virtual learning. The group recorded responses from 620 classroom teachers, support staff and non-classroom certificated staff. Each of the respondents were actively working classrooms at the time the survey was taken.
Overall, the district has about 8,700 school-based employees. The district, however, says they “don’t track employees by whether they work in-person or remote at the district level.”
School health officials, as of Nov. 15, had recorded 347 positive cases since reopening for in-person classes in October. Those numbers include 139 students and 208 staff. There have also been a far greater number of staff and student quarantines.
This has led to pushback against the district’s original phase-in reopening plan from educators and school staff members.
“We have classrooms that are at capacity with little to no distancing,” said Metro Schools teacher Amanda Baker, during a school board meeting earlier this month. “Kids [are] sitting for multiple hours with little to no movement to try to decrease the spread.”
Since before the school year began, many teachers have expressed concern about the safety of educators during the pandemic. Common concerns have been poor sanitation, inadequate ventilation and large class sizes. The teachers association has been negotiating with the district to address these issues.
For the most part, in-school transmission has remained low across the state. Tennessee schools have mostly closed buildings because of staffing shortages. There have also been outbreaks within school sports teams.
Concerns for the most vulnerable students
Virtual learning, so far, has been a rocky road for many families in Metro Schools. They’ve expressed concerns over learning loss and the impact that this type of schooling has on working families.
Another concern has been the difficulty of supporting exceptional education students in a remote environment.
“Virtual learning alone has never been and will never be sufficient for the exceptional education student that has a 1:1 support accommodation requirement within their Individualized Education Plan,” said Tiffany Acuff, an exceptional education parent and chair of the district’s Exceptional Education Family Advisory Council.
Many students with disabilities are unable to navigate virtual assignments and require hands-on, in-person support to complete their classwork — which is why the district phased-in EE students before kids without disabilities.
Acuff told WPLN News before Monday’s announcement that, while she’s been encouraged by the prioritization of EE students during the past few months, she doesn’t want the needs of these kids to be pushed to the side.
“During this time of increased COVID-19 cases, the EEFAC will continue to advocate for safe, in-person accommodations and supports for our most vulnerable population of learners,” said Acuff.