RCS parents tell board they want students back in classrooms

RCS Director of Schools J.T. Stroder listens to parent input during the Dec. 8 virtual board meeting

Several parents addressed the Rogersville City School Board at their recent meeting and spoke out against the 100% virtual learning platform that the school is using due to COVID-19.

Though the school has gone back and forth from in-person, hybrid and 100% virtual learning throughout the semester, the school announced on Dec. 2 that they would remain on 100% virtual instruction until after the Christmas holiday due to climbing COVID-19 case numbers.

Director of Schools J.T. Stroder later addressed these complaints in a letter to parents and noted that the school’s “decision making is centered around student learning.”

RCS’s Christmas break begins December 18 at 11:30 a.m., and students are set to return to school January 5, 2021.

Stroder explained before the semester began that the school would closely monitor COVID-19 case data and make decisions about instruction platforms based on the data received and in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

As case numbers continue to climb throughout the region, Hawkins County Schools also went back to a 100% virtual platform beginning on Wednesday, Dec. 16 and continuing through the remainder of the semester, which ends on Dec. 18. When schools return on Jan. 4, classes will continue to be held virtually until Jan. 8.

Parents unhappy with 100% virtual platform

However, several parents addressed the RCS board during their Dec. 8 board meeting, which was held virtually, to state their complaints about the 100% virtual platform.

“I have been very concerned about the virtual learning platform as an educator myself and also as a nurse,” parent Amy Jeffers told the board. “I would like the board to consider and urge them to really look into other school systems and data that has been proven all around that shows that it is safe to attend school for children and see what data RCS is keeping up with.”

She also asked the board how many students were not participating in their online classes or not completing assignments.

“What are you all doing for all those children that are being left home alone while working parents are working?” she asked. “What are you doing about parents who have had to quit their jobs?”

She said that she knew of a petition currently being signed by other RCS parents who Jeffers said “would really like for their children to be in school.”

She also noted that she is a teacher within Hawkins County schools and noted that she is “getting to go to school and participate in-person and doing very well.”

Jeffers then referenced a comment that Stroder made to news media in November that stated RCS had “a few (COVID cases) here and there, but nothing significant”.

“If nothing is significant, I’m concerned about why we are not attending like every other functioning county surrounding us,” Jeffers said.

“Please always do what is best for our children”

Mandy Kenner, who is the parent of an RCS eighth grader also addressed the board and noted that she understands closing schools if there are not enough teachers to monitor students; however, she said she didn’t agree with “remaining virtual because there is a desire not to change schedules.”

Kenner is employed through Hawkins County Schools as the nutrition supervisor.

“It appears that the COVID-19 data currently being used by RCS is community Epi-curve data that is published by the Tennessee Department of Health,” Kenner said. “While that is very important information, I feel it should be used in conjunction with other data points such as district-level data as recommended by the TDOE soon after the fall semester began.”

She added, “Using multiple data points, and drilling down to appropriate demographic would seem to be more applicable than solely focusing on community data that includes positivity from testing at jails, long-term care facilities and other demographic groups that do not directly affect students and staff in a school setting.”

She also criticized the school for using “expected data,” such as when the school announced that they would remain virtual after the Thanksgiving holiday and noted on their Facebook page that “the Thanksgiving holiday is expected to create a spike in cases.”

“Please always do what is best for our children rather than placate those adults, whether they be parents or school staff, who may be fearful during this time,” Kenner added.

“We know there are 40,000 (vaccines) coming to Hawkins County”

Parent Ashley Lyons also asked Stroder about the system’s plan to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to RCS staff and referenced an RCS Facebook post from Dec. 1 that read in part “We are hopeful that we will have a vaccine come out soon and after the holidays will allow us the opportunity to resume school in a regular fashion.”

Stroder noted that school administrators meet with representatives from the Tenn. Department of Health on a weekly basis.

“We know there are 40,000 (vaccines) coming to Hawkins County in the first round,” Stroder said. “Our hope is that after the Christmas holidays we think we’re going to be able to at least move back to the hybrid schedule (half attends two days, the other half attends the other two days, all virtual on Friday) that we were (previously) under. Ideally, we would like to do more than that, but we’re just not in a position to know yet.”

Not all parents oppose virtual learning

Not all parents oppose the schools decision to remain 100% virtual, though. In fact, several parents left positive messages on the school’s Facebook page when they announced the switch to virtual.

“I just want to thank the administration and staff for keeping my children safe and healthy,” parent Kristina Ellis wrote. “The teachers are doing a fantastic job teaching the kids!”

“I humbly thank you all for protecting our students, the staff and community, specifically my 7th grader,” parent Daphne Holt wrote. “I am an educator as well, and on a daily basis I am praising RCS 7th grade teachers! Words could never express my appreciation.”

“We can’t wait to be back to normal, but definitely appreciate those going above and beyond to make virtual learning work in the meantime,” wrote parent Jamie Hooker.

“Our decision making is centered around student learning”

Stroder also addressed these and other comments in a Dec. 10 letter to parents, which will be linked to the online version of this article and can be found on the RCS Facebook page as well as inside the Review’s Dec. 16 Midweek edition.

“Our decision making is centered around student learning and what we can deliver with instructional integrity while at the same time balancing what is best for the health and safety of all of our staff, students, and their families at home,” Stroder said within the letter. “Ideally, we believe that the best environment for students to learn is in front of a teacher, physically in a classroom. Unfortunately, we are not anywhere close to an ideal scenario. The numbers of cases in our region and state are staggering. Ballad Health has taken the stance that the best way to curb what is occurring is to shut down entirely for several weeks and quarantine.”

He went on to note that all superintendents in the region hold weekly phone calls with regional health leaders.

The letter also explained that RCS was the first district in the state to offer live virtual learning across all grade levels, and the school was actually contacted by other districts around the state interested in their method of virtual learning.

“There is disinformation that school districts surrounding us are staying open and that is simply not true,” Stroder said.

He noted that Washington, Sullivan and Unicoi Counties have all shifted entirely to virtual learning until mid-January.

After this letter was released, Hawkins County Schools also announced that they would remain virtual until Jan. 8.