School buildings closed, work continues in J.C. Schools

By Dave Ongie, News Editor

Prior to last Wednesday, school systems across Tennessee were in a state of limbo.

Empty Classroom
(File Photo)

Teachers and administrators were focused on the task at hand – educating students virtually and checking in to be sure their needs were being met. But in the back of everyone’s mind was the possibility that school buildings could be reopened before the end of the academic year.

Gov. Bill Lee’s recommendation last week that school buildings remain closed through the end of the school year provided some clarity for systems as they move forward.

“It allows us to go into a different type of mode of planning,” Johnson City Schools superintendent Dr. Steve Barnett said last Thursday.

Barnett was obviously hopeful schools could return at some point in May in order to allow students of all ages to come together and celebrate their accomplishments. Now that school buildings will not be reopening, however, the focus shifts to finding a way for seniors at Science Hill to be able to have a meaningful graduation ceremony and prom.

Barnett said ETSU’s MiniDome will not be available to host Science Hill’s graduation, and there is no guarantee a gathering that large will be allowed by that time anyway. But options are being formulated and considered with the goal of allowing seniors to have the best experience possible under the circumstances.

“We’re looking at all those options, and we’ll have that information out to our families, our seniors, some time in May,” he said. “We want to get closer to it where we have better information. We’d hate to do something like cancel or make the decision to do virtual (events) now, and then by the end of May, they say it’s okay to have a gathering.”

Science Hill traditionally hosts its prom inside Grand Topper Hall on the school’s campus, so that will provide some flexibility to reschedule the event at the 11th hour if social distancing measures are eased in time.

With those decisions looming, Barnett stressed that teachers, administrators and staff at every level of the system will be going full-bore through the end of the academic year – and beyond. Meals are being provided for pickup at schools in Johnson City every weekday, teachers are connecting with students face-to-face through Zoom and other apps to provide support and guidance as the students complete classwork and guidance counselors and related arts teachers are also in communication with students.

Meanwhile, Barnett and other leaders within the system are looking ahead to this summer. Virtual summer camps are being planned for students from grades 5-8. High school students who need to knock out some credits will get a chance to do so this summer with wellness, economics, government, personal finance and part of driver’s education available through online courses. Students of all ages who need some extra academic reinforcement prior to next school year will be contacted when options for summer school are able to be finalized.

There are also some mundane end-of-the-year tasks that need to be completed despite the COVID-19 outbreak. Barnett said plans are being made to return personal items and materials to students and families who want those back. Conversely, plans are being made that will allow students to safely return items to their respective schools that they currently have at home.

While the logistics for all this are being sorted at the district level, Barnett said communication to parents and students will be more effective if it comes from their individual schools.

“We feel like that’s the very best way to communicate things effectively and have less confusion for our families,” he said. “Parents and children are used to communicating with their principal and teachers in their schools.”


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