Students can return in-person to Rutherford County Schools with pandemic-related distance learning options to start the year Aug. 10, the board decided Tuesday.
The Board of Education unanimously reaffirmed its decision that students return to school after being out since March for in-person learning on Aug. 10 with a 2.5 hour day. Students in grades 1-12 will then return for a phase-in rest of the first week Aug. 11-14 for 3 hours and 15 minutes. The first full day will be Aug. 17.
The district will soon be sending parents of kindergartners and pre-kindergartners a phase-in opening of schools schedule that's different than what the older students use, spokesman James Evans said. The district also is allowing families to sign up for distance learning through Aug. 5.
The board on July 9 voted for a traditional reopening of schools while also providing families with distance learning options.
Gov. Bill Lee encouraged schools on Tuesday to reopen for in-person learning.
Rutherford County had 5,514 confirmed coronavirus cases and 48 deaths as of Monday, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. That's an increase from the July 9 count when the county had 3,326 cases and 38 deaths. Rutherford as of Monday had 2,818 active cases and 2,648 recoveries.
In addition to the reopening issue, the board recently decided to require masks for students and school employees. The decision allows for exceptions, such as for students with medical conditions or children learning phonics.
The district plans to provide employees with face shields to offer more protection while working with children not wearing masks. County Schools Director Bill Spurlock also suggested students will have break times when they can remove masks while social distancing.
The fast-growing district operates 49 schools and expects to serve 49,000 students from pre-K through 12th grade.
Murfreesboro City Schools adopts hybrid model
In addition to the county district, Murfreesboro City Schools announced Tuesday that the district will use a hybrid plan to open the school year Aug. 10. This plan will have pre-K through second grade students beginning in the traditional school setting but allow distance learning options. The third through sixth grade students will use distance learning with some exceptions allowed.
Prior to the vote by the county school board, the elected officials provided time for visitor comments. Rising eighth-grader Madilyn Rigsby asked for schools to reopen with in-person learning.
“I haven't learned anything since March 12,” said Madilyn, adding that she's missed time with friends and educators at Thurman Francis Arts Academy in Smyrna. “It’s harder to truly learn online. Please, give us the option to go to school.”
Three teachers, however, requested that the board start the year with distance learning.
“I can be successful with distance learning, and it's a safer alternative for students and teachers,” said Natalie McDowell, a Blackman High AP history teacher.
Mask-less board member questioned
Two physicians also spoke in favor of the district starting the year with distance learning for all students to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Board member Lisa Moore caused one of the physicians to question her from his audience seat when she read a letter from a chiropractor that challenged the board's mask policy. In a room packed with over 70 people, Moore was the only one not wearing a mask.
A woman in the audience questioned Moore during the meeting about not wearing a mask before sheriff's deputies escorted the woman out of the room for disrupting the meeting.
After the meeting, Moore then faced questions from a TV news reporter in a hallway outside the meeting room about not wearing a mask and reading the chiropractor's letter.
“I have a medical reason, and I'm not going to discuss it,” Moore said before walking away.
Before the end of the meeting, board Chairman Jim Estes urged people to wear a mask because the district wants students to be able to go prom, graduation, ball games and other school events.
“We want all the help we can get,” Estes said.
Board member Tiffany Johnson called for the unanimous vote to reopen schools with in-person learning. She said she trusts teachers, principals and administrators to make the best possible decisions to educate students and keep them safe.
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Reach reporter Scott Broden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-278-5158, and on Twitter @ScottBroden.