Diocese of Knoxville schools to reopen on August 3

Students, faculty returning to classrooms as administrators work out details for safe resumption of classes

By Emily Booker

Summer is just beginning, but schools in the Diocese of Knoxville already are planning for the return of students to the classroom in the fall. After a spring of at-home learning, students will return to school for the 2020-21 school year on Aug. 3.

Consultation with medical professionals revealed the possibility of an increase in communicable illness following Thanksgiving. Therefore, the fall calendar will look a bit different this year, with no fall break and students shifting to at-home learning after Thanksgiving break.

In a letter sent to parents, Bishop Richard F. Stika and diocesan schools superintendent Dr. Sedonna Prater stated, “The health, safety, and welfare of our communities remains our highest priority in planning for the return of students to campus.”

Plans for a physical return to school include social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and disinfecting, cleaning, and sanitizing protocols. Best practices will be guided by the Centers for Disease Control, local health departments, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Guidelines are based on the latest medical information, but they can quickly change, and the schools are working to be flexible and attentive to any updates.

There are three stages of learning that schools may be using in the upcoming school year: on-campus learning, blended learning, and at-home learning.

Scenario I: on-campus learning

With on-campus learning, schools will resume with normal capacity but with revised sanitation and hygiene procedures. Athletics, extracurricular activities, and afterschool programming are expected to resume with possible modifications.

All employees, students, and visitors will be screened and have their temperature checked prior to entering the building. Masks or face coverings will be required in common areas.

Outdoor classes will be encouraged.

Students will eat in classrooms or outdoor areas rather than at a large group in the cafeteria.

Choral and band courses will be suspended as those activities can increase the risk of illness spread, though Dr. Prater ensures students that they will still study music in other ways, such as music appreciation and music history.

Athletics may have restrictions, too. Fall athletes already have begun conditioning in small groups, but when and how games may be played will be directed by TSSAA guidelines.

Scenario II: blended learning

If state guidelines indicate that social distancing needs to be maintained, a hybrid learning model will go into place to ensure 50 percent or less of the total student body is present on any day. Students will have a blend of live instruction and remote learning. For example, one week a student will attend school and receive classroom instruction, and the next week he or she will participate in at-home learning sessions.

Each school will develop schedules to accommodate a hybrid model that best suits their students.

They also are working to accommodate child-care needs for families who cannot have students remain at home on blended learning days.

Scenario III: at-home learning Classes will resume to fully at-home learning, similar to this spring.

While the schools believe the optimum educational delivery for holistic development of students is in-school attendance, the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 infection coinciding with the flu season may force schools to shift back to at-home learning.

Dr. Prater hopes these scenarios can keep schools running and safe based on changing situations and guidelines. They can also be adapted to help schools stay flexible even after the coronavirus outbreak has passed. Teachers and students have shown their flexibility and skill to switch to virtual learning when needed.

“Even going forward, we envision the blended, at-home, at-school to be something we will move in and out of as we need to for illness or for weather,” she said.

“We have talked for a long time about virtual snow days. One thing this pandemic did was taught us that we can do that. So we can apply this to times when we even have weather-related closures.”

While this coming school year may look different, schools are committed to maintaining a sense of community among their families.

Communication will be key in the coming school year, as plans may have to shift. Parents are encouraged to stay in contact with their children’s school and teachers. It may be stressful arranging childcare or overseeing at-home learning periods. But patience and grace will help families get through this time. Schools will be making efforts to help parents stay in touch with teachers, administrators, and other parents.

Teachers will be working to ensure students will receive a comprehensive, holistic education but are encouraged to keep empathy and flexibility in mind. The students’ well-being—physical, emotional, social, and spiritual—is the most important goal.

“We know we are dealing with children and students,” Dr. Prater said. “We’re going to do our best to keep social distance, but we want our children and students to socially and emotionally thrive in all areas and we also want this experience to not be so burdensome that they can’t have the joy that children have of learning and playing and doing. I think it’s critical that we not lose sight that we’re dealing with young people.”

For families concerned about their children’s safety and welfare in the classroom and who would prefer homeschooling or online learning, the Diocese of Knoxville Catholic Schools’ Office is investigating the possibility of offering these families a Catholic school online learning option. Contact Dr. Prater or the school’s president/principal to explore this option.

Dr. Prater said that if this option becomes available, more information will be provided.

Families can expect to receive more detailed information for the school year and classroom protocols from their children’s schools.

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