By Karen Campbell
Special to The Press
Governor Bill Lee asked school superintendents across the state to extend the closure of Tennessee schools until April 24 in his media briefing on Tuesday afternoon.
Weakley County Schools Director Randy Frazier had already determined that schools will not re-open on April 1 but was waiting on more information to say when and even if students would return to close out the 2019-2020 school year.
“We will follow the governor’s suggestion and continue closure of schools here,” he said following the governor’s announcement. “We now look forward to receiving guidance from the state on what will be expected from schools by way of instruction during the days ahead.”
In his request to superintendents, Lee noted that “we want our students to continue to learn” and offered a recently signed contract with PBS as an example of alternative forms of education that will need to be employed.
Weakley County closed all ten of its schools on March 17 after the governor released his statement encouraging them to do so “as soon as possible” in hopes of curtailing the spread of the COVID-19virus.
Since the closures, the Weakley County Schools Nutrition staff as well as teachers, educational assistants, and administrators provided breakfast and lunch at what became 13 drive-through locations.
“Our first priority when we had to close was to make sure everyone was safe and fed,” explained Frazier.
Next up for Frazier and the district’s instructional supervisors is to determine, along with input from administrators, counselors and teachers, what instruction is going to look like both now and when students do ultimately return to the classroom. To accomplish that, the state Department of Education (DOE) will need to finalize their expectations for not only 2019-2020 but the beginning of the next school year as well.
“When we know what the DOE is going to ask of us, then we can creatively provide something for parents to put in their children’s hands that encourages learning during the closure. We can also begin shaping what will need to happen in order to address gaps in learning that is foundational if students are going to successfully move to the next grade,” he noted.
Since the guidance to close came after Weakley schools had returned on March 16, students were out four days before beginning what was scheduled to be a spring break. As a result, of schools refrained from issuing any mandated take-home work.
“Districts that immediately began to implement online curriculum and sent home packets are now scrambling and having to backtrack because they’re being told they have to make sure all children have the same access and, if they mandated the completion of the material, they have to provide other services to their special needs population that they can’t get into the homes and do. It’s become a problem,” he reported.
Many teachers are encouraging their students to continue learning as they reach out via social media and apps. While the activities are not required, they are suggested as a means to keep minds active. Videos of teachers reading books aloud and links to fun and educational online sites are among the suggestions. Gleason school librarian Amy Lawrence created a makeshift library in her home dining room and husband Lee, the school principal served as videographer for the Facebook posting, as she addressed her class of son Luke and several stuffed animals. Dresden high school librarian Alison Page offered her students guidance on how they could utilize their online access to public library offerings.
In Weakley, Frazier points to the diversity of the county’s student population as a reason for taking time to thoughtfully shape how the schools will address filling in gaps created by the time off.
“Some have easy access to technology and the internet and some have no access. Some have someone in the home to work alongside them, and some do not. Some of our special needs children have parents who can assist them and some require certified practitioners. We cannot move forward with a plan until we know we’ve ensured equal access for all,” he said.
“I think it’s doable,” he added. “We will need some additional relief from the state just as they told us last week that testing and evaluations were at our discretion. We’ll need some of that same flexibility as we plan on how to cover this year and be ready for future years to come.”
He pointed to changing expectations on proficiency scores in 2021 and allowing for a couple of months of catch up at the beginning of the upcoming school year as among the options that the state could consider.
The third emphasis for Frazier and school leadership during the time of closure is to look at how current and future efforts can address the mental health of students.
“As we talk in the days ahead, we are going to be looking for ways to manage ‘cabin fever’ and the anxieties it may produce,” he said.
Sharon Principal Michelle Clements used Facebook to offer a virtual sprit week with suggested activities for posting each day this week. Another means to address these needs are the calls being made by teachers.
“We understand how important the bond is between a student and their teacher. Our teachers have reached out and made calls and are going to do so each week to check in on the child and let them know we want to help in any way we can,” he said.
Calls last week informed the meal distribution process with information collected identifying gaps in access. Future calls may help to map out areas where more technology help is needed should the district’s instructional response include online interaction.
In some cases, the school has discovered that the phone number for the child has been changed. Any family who has not received a call is asked to reach out to their teacher or principal to provide the updated number.
Frazier plans to announce the extent of the upcoming closure by Friday. Seewww.weakleyschools.com for updates.