Virtual classes cause confusion

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Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas

Knox County students may not be given the choice of attending virtual classes next semester after all. 

The question of who or what is to blame, however, was very much up in the air Wednesday following a series of contradictory statements made by representatives of the Knox County Schools and the state Board of Education. 

Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas sent an email to the entire school system at 5:33 p.m. Wednesday announcing that admissions to virtual classes for the 2021-2022 school year were frozen due to a proposed rule change at the state level. 

On March 26, Thomas had announced that students in grades 1 through 12  would again have the option of choosing between attending school in person or taking online classes. In the 2020-2021 school year, nearly all students were given those choices as part of a continuous learning plan (CLP) drawn up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Wednesday’s statement, however, Thomas said it was unclear if state officials would allow the Knox County plan to go forward.

“We learned today that the State Board of Education is holding a special-called meeting on Monday, April 12, to consider a rule that would affect the ability of school districts to offer daily virtual instruction in the upcoming school year,” Thomas said. “If approved, this rule would require virtual students in Tennessee to un-enroll from their base school and enroll in a virtual school approved by the state. 

“Our plan would be to apply for three Knox County virtual schools for elementary, middle, and high school students, with each having a capacity of 1,500 students as required by law.”

There are approximately 13,000 students currently enrolled in Knox County’s virtual option, according to KCS officials.

“This postponement will give our district more time to obtain guidance about the State Board’s decision and to determine our plan for virtual learning. In the meantime, we will continue to have conversations with the State Board,” Thomas said.

The announcement was greeted with disdain by students, parents and teachers who demanded to know why state officials apparently wished to interfere with how counties run their schools. Some also speculated that the state board was acting at the behest of Gov. Bill Lee, who purportedly wants students back in normal classrooms to appease supporters who believe that society has overreacted to the coronavirus. 

After receiving a copy of Thomas’s statement, Hard Knox Wire contacted Knox County’s representative on the state Board of Education, Mike Edwards, for comment. Edwards said he didn’t feel comfortable commenting because he didn’t have enough time to review the proposal and instead arranged an interview with a board representative in Nashville.

The problem with Thomas’s statement is that the state BOE isn’t scheduled to discuss any of those issues at Monday’s meeting, according to Elizabeth Tullos, strategic communications consultant for the board. 

Rather, the board will vote on making it a requirement that all school systems maintain an approved CLP into the future, she said.

A CLP contains plans for continuing to provide students their legally guaranteed education even in the face of disruptive emergencies like the pandemic or a tornado, she explained.

“This item establishes a permanent expectation for districts and public charter schools to maintain CLPs for use in the event of emergencies that affect school operations,” she said. “This differs from virtual schools, particularly in that CLPs only go into effect during emergencies. A virtual school would be a fully virtual option hosted by a local education agency (LEA) that families choose to attend. A CLP is a district or public charter school’s plan of action to continue providing high-quality education in the event of school closures.”

When asked about the discrepancies late Wednesday, Knox County Schools spokesperson Carly Harrington issued the following statement: “We have been in conversation with the State Board. The item on their agenda related to continuous learning plans will have an impact on our ability to offer full-time virtual instruction at our base schools.” 

More on the story of this semantic skirmish as it develops in Hard Knox Wire.

 J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on April 8, 2021