Starting Monday, middle school students who attend classes in person will return to the alternating schedules used earlier this year, Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers said in a letter to families and staff members on Friday.
The transition back to alternating schedules is due to an increase in the number of students being quarantined, Borchers said. Quarantined students cannot attend school at all for face-to-face instruction, he said.
“We realized that bringing all middle school students together had the potential to increase the number of students we would be sending home to quarantine when a single peer tests positive for COVID-19,” Borchers said. “Due to the increase in the number of students being quarantined, it is our plan to transition back to the alternating A/B schedule effective Monday, November 16, 2020.”
Using the staggered schedules, some students have attended classes on Mondays and Thursdays, and others have attended on Tuesdays and Fridays. Students have then had online classes the other three days.
The middle schools, but not the high school, transitioned back to classes five days per week on Monday, November 2. The transition back to that schedule was announced October 19, before the current COVID-19 case surge had grown to record levels across the country and when numbers in Oak Ridge Schools were low. The school system had wanted to monitor the transition at the middle schools before determining whether to bring high school students back to class five days per week.
Since then, though, cases have surged, with 45 cases reported among Oak Ridge students and staff members since October 21. The surge started after fall break, although it’s not clear if the two events are connected.
It appears to be a reflection of what is happening across the country. Anderson and Roane counties have both set recent records for new daily cases, and deaths and hospitalizations have continued to tick up. Tennessee reported a record number of COVID-19 deaths and current hospitalizations on Wednesday, and the United States is setting records for new daily cases and current hospitalizations. Nationwide, cases have passed 150,000 new cases per day, current hospitalizations are over 60,000, and deaths are back over 1,000 per day.
On Friday, Borchers said the school system is experiencing an increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases, but the reason for the transition back to the alternating schedules is not due to having send home sick students. Instead, with increased class sizes, the school system is potentially increasing the number of students who have to quarantine due to social distancing guidelines, he said.
“Our hope is that transitioning back to an alternating A/B schedule now will reduce the possibility that we need to transition to a full virtual program later,” Borchers said.
When it announced its transition back to five days per week at middle schools in October, the school system had said it could return to the alternating schedules if a high number of COVID-19 cases were to be reported later.
The school system now plans to stay with the alternating schedule until mid-January, when it will re-assess the decision, Borchers said.
“We continue to express the following priorities for the health, safety, and learning needs of our community,” Borchers said in his letter:
- “Our main priority will always be the health and safety of our students, staff, and community.
- Face-to-face instruction cannot be fully replicated in distance learning and returning to a traditional school schedule best serves our students and families.”
He said Oak Ridge Schools staff members have taken multiple steps to exercise safety measures during the pandemic.
“We continue to allow our health department data and scientific recommendations to inform our ongoing health and safety practices and decision-making,” Borchers said. “Families must provide additional support in our efforts to provide a safe learning environment for students and staff by keeping children at home if they are exhibiting COVID-like symptoms, including fever. It is essential to keep children at home if they have been exposed to a person confirmed to have COVID-19, or if anyone in the household is exhibiting COVID-like symptoms or is awaiting test results. Not being consistent in following this expectation has put students at risk of being restricted from attending school for a 14-day period.”
Borchers said middle school principals will be sending out more details on Sunday, November 15, in their weekly correspondence to families, and families are encouraged to contact administrators at the middle schools with questions after that information is received.
The preschool and four elementary schools started the school year with in-person instruction five days per week, and that hasn’t changed.