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As a military spouse and parent, Anne Perrault has dealt with many challenges.

But like every parent facing the upcoming school year amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, she is worried about making the right educational choice for her school-age daughter.

“I think, for us, it’s looking at her emotional and social health and her education,” Perrault said of her family’s decision to choose traditional school at Sango Elementary for her rising second grader, Ada.

Families weigh options

Parents of Clarksville-Montgomery County students were given until July 19 to decide whether to opt for traditional or virtual K-12 school for their kids this fall. Some are still deciding.

CMCSS Chief Communications Officer Anthony Johnson said the district has received responses for about 80% of students, with about 60% choosing traditional and 40% picking the virtual option.

“I think that speaks to the importance of having those options for parents, because as you can see, there was a demand for the virtual option,” Johnson said. He added that the district is pleased with the response rate so far. 

“That’s probably exceeded where we felt we might be doing this process electronically. We knew the entire time there were families that we would still have to do more personal reach-outs, and that’s the process we’re going to continue,” Johnson said.

The district is reaching out by phone to those families who haven’t yet responded due to outdated or missing contact information or lack of internet access.

For Perrault, deciding on traditional school hasn’t been without worry.

“I’m expecting a new baby in September, and I just don’t think I will be able to give (Ada) what she needs at home,” Perrault said. “But my biggest reservations are her potentially getting sick or bringing germs back to the family with a newborn and preschooler at home.”

She said she’s also felt the pressure of public opinion.

“There’s a smaller part of me that’s worried about all the people who say picking traditional means you don’t care about your kids, you don’t care about their health. That’s kind of nagging at me, but not enough to change my mind,” Perrault said. “I think just trying to get back to as normal as possible even in these weird times is weighing over everything else for us.”

For families like the Perraults who’ve opted for traditional school, the focus is shifting to how they ensure their kids go to school in a safe environment. Meanwhile, families who’ve opted for virtual school are waiting on answers about what exactly that’s going to look like.

Here’s a breakdown of both.

Traditional

CMCSS schools are now scheduled to reopen Aug. 31, allowing traditional schools more time to prepare for health and safety modifications.

Given the number of students signed up for virtual school, the district has already managed to accomplish one big objective: reducing their numbers, Johnson said.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean class sizes will be smaller this fall.

“We’re reducing the amount of people inside the building, which all guidance indicates is a best practice during the pandemic,” Johnson said. “It’s not necessarily going to reduce class sizes, but it will reduce the amount of people in shared spaces.”

Reducing the number of people in the building is also allowing officials to reduce bus capacities, since only 55% of students returning to traditional school have indicated they’ll need bus transportation, data shows.

Johnson said all schools will utilize best practices, including social distancing, mask-wearing, enhanced sanitation and cohorting students whenever possible.

But what that might look like will vary from school to school.

“Each school is unique in their environment. Each building administrator and their team will come up with plans. To the greatest extent possible, we’re going to have students social distancing,” he said, noting guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics has indicated 3 feet of social distancing space may be adequate if students are masked. 

When it comes to masks, the district has announced that they’ll be required for all students on buses, as well as for all students in grades 6-12 anywhere social distancing isn’t possible. They’ll be at least encouraged for elementary students.

“We are continuing to see guidance that says that masks may be conducive to an elementary environment,” Johnson said.

District officials are adjusting custodial schedules, encouraging frequent hand-washing, providing hand sanitizer and educating people about proper hygiene.

Fewer students will mean fewer kids in the cafeteria at once, and educators have said they don’t plan to have students eating in classrooms. They’re also working to break up the size of traditionally bigger classes, like physical education.

Flexibility is key as everyone works to make decisions amid the ever-changing guidance in collaboration with the local health department, Johnson said.

“Our plan has to be a flexible plan that can ebb and flow as we receive more information. So our plan, at any time, is subject to change,” Johnson said, adding that if the schools have to shut down again, they’ll be ready. It’s a shift that could also fundamentally change such things as snow days and sick days, making online instruction standard for days kids can’t be in school.

“We will continue learning no matter what. It’s not going to look like the paper packets that we did in February. That was the best we could do, as it hit us by surprise,” Johnson explained. “Now, with more data and more planning, it would look a lot different.”

When it comes to handling COVID-positive cases, plans are still in development, Johnson said.

The guidance is continually changing, with recommendations ranging from closing an entire school for up to five days to shutting down one classroom for 24 hours.

“It’s important to us to continue to review that guidance and present a plan when we feel like it’s settled,” Johnson said. “We understand there’s a lot of confusion because we’ve received conflicting guidance, and we’re trying to make sense of it.

“There’s a possibility that we could start the year with a certain routine or guidance and have to change it midyear.”

Currently, Clarksville-Montgomery County School officials are awaiting guidance from the Tennessee Department of Education on how to handle attendance policies, but Johnson said district officials are prepared to be flexible.

“At the end of the day, education is important, but we know that we don’t want to have students who are sick coming to school,” Johnson said. The district is setting up isolation rooms that are separate from the school nurse’s office in each school for students who develop COVID-19 symptoms.

“What it comes down to is the challenge in balancing the pandemic and mitigating the risk of spreading COVID-19 with also ensuring we’re taking care of the needs of our students,” Johnson said. 

So far, Perrault says she’s happy with what she’s seen from the schools.

“I honestly think the school’s done a good job of doing their best to alleviate our concerns. I feel as comfortable as I would expect to in sending her back,” she said of her daughter.

Virtual

CMCSS families opting for virtual K-12 school will follow the same school calendar in a virtual learning environment staffed by certified CMCSS teachers. Each student will receive a technology device. Those in need of internet access can request a hot spot.

Beyond offering all core content for grades K-8, the district is also aiming to offer as many high school classes as possible, including academy courses.

“Originally, we weren’t sure we’d be able to offer the academies of CMCSS,” Johnson said. “After we got feedback and the team went back and looked at it, we’re going to be able to offer most of that coursework.”

The district is asking families who opt for virtual instruction to commit to one semester, but “if it’s not working out, we’ll do case-by-case reach-outs and try to find the best educational environment for that student,” Johnson said.

Virtual students must have a designated learning mentor — typically a parent — who’ll receive training on their expectations.

“It’s another adult who’s there to ensure they’re checking in with the student and ensuring the student is logging into classes and completing their work. They’re committing to being there for the student the entire time to be their support system,” said Johnson, noting some families are finding creative ways to make sure their kids get that oversight.

“There’s already families that are developing co-op plans,” he said.

While the learning mentor will be expected to monitor the student’s daily academic progress, create a schedule and manage school at home, they won’t be expected to teach.

“There’s a lot of folks saying they don’t know the curriculum or how to teach it. But this is different. Students will have that daily contact with the teacher. The teacher will still reach out to students who need support on a one-on-one basis,” Johnson said.

He called the virtual platform a robust learning management system that tracks attendance and allows for interaction with teachers, who are expected to maintain daily contact with students and offer virtual “office hours.”

“There’s going to be an expectation of daily contact, but what that looks like depends on each level,” Johnson said. The format will also allow for a degree of flexibility for students, who are expected to do four to six hours of learning daily.

“Each teacher will schedule times for lessons. But after that, there’s a lot of flexibility with a child’s schedule,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of like a perfect hybrid. There’s going to be opportunities for students to work at their own pace, but then you also have that daily structure and lessons.”

Students will still be expected to do hands-on work. 

“I’ve heard from parents worried, thinking, ‘How is my kindergartner going to learn to write their name or use scissors?’ Although the instruction is delivered in a virtual format, students will still be engaged in the hands-on activities the same way they would be in a traditional setting,” Johnson said.

CMCSS views this as just another “school of choice” offering.

“It’s really been a very fast-paced environment, trying to develop this now for thousands of students,” Johnson said. “For us as a district, it’s been our drive to provide choices for parents for years. This is just another step toward that.

“The challenge is scaling something like this during a pandemic. Every school district in Tennessee and across this nation is having to rethink the way we do public education in response to a global pandemic.”

And district officials know the stakes are high. 

“It’s something that weighs on us each day. We haven’t had students receiving direct instruction since the beginning of March. We know the realities of the learning gap and how important it is to get students back in a learning environment, whether that’s virtual or traditional,” Johnson said. “For us, the challenge has been the pace of trying to figure everything out to ensure that no matter what, every student gets a high-quality education.”

For the next few weeks, counselors will do case reviews for each student enrolled in virtual school to ensure they’re set up for success. They’re also working to ensure they can meet the needs of their virtual Special Population students, Johnson said.

For the Perraults and many other families, it’s been a roller coaster.

“It’s back and forth, up and down every day,” she said.

For CMCSS, it’s a critical challenge.

“School is a safe haven. It’s a social-emotional support. It’s a place of education for so many students who may not get that if they’re not there,” said Johnson, who says it’s a necessity to get schools back up and running. “It’s a heavy weight on all of our shoulders in trying to make this work.

“The strength of our plan is that we’ve provided options for parents, and through those options, it’s going to reduce the number of students in our buildings and on our transportation, so we can better mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Reach Jennifer Babich at 931-245-0742 or by email at jbabich@gannett.com.

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