A majority of students in Kingsport and Sullivan County public schools will have the opportunity to head back to school for in-person learning soon.

Officials of both systems said improving COVID-19 pandemic metrics, including those reviewed during a Thursday afternoon meeting with Sullivan County Regional Health Department officials, drove the decisions.

Sullivan County Director of Schools David Cox said the Epi Curve had reached 11.28 new cases per 100,000 over a 14-day period and is expected soon to get to the less than 10 required to go from the red to the yellow level.

KINGSPORT, SULLIVAN DECISIONS

Kingsport City Schools (KCS) Assistant Superintendent of Administration Andy True announced via email Thursday afternoon that face-to-face students in grades 6-12 will go back to in-person learning starting Monday.

All KCS face-to-face students in grades pre-K through 5 began in-person learning Aug. 31, and grades 6-12 in face-to-face learning started hybrid learning Aug. 31.

Later Thursday evening, the Sullivan County Board of Education voted 5-2 for an amended plan by Cox for face-to-face grades pre-K through 8 students to be four days a week in-person and one day virtual starting Sept. 29.

And those students, plus grades 9-12, are to start five-day a week in-person learning Oct. 19, the beginning of the second nine-week grading period after a weeklong fall break.

Sullivan students started in a hybrid plan Aug. 24, with face-to-face students in A group going Monday and Tuesday and those in B group going Thursday and Friday.

Goodbye, VIRTUAL WEDNESDAYS

The original recommendation of Cox was for county students to return to in-person learning Sept. 29 and Oct. 19 but go only four days a week, with Wednesdays a virtual day for them until the novel coronavirus metrics improved more. Students currently are all virtual on Wednesday.

However, the BOE voted 7-0 to approve an amendment to a motion to adopt the Cox recommendation, as proposed by newly elected Vice Chairman Matthew Spivey, to have elementary and middle students have two virtual Wednesdays after Sept. 29 and for high schoolers to return straight to a five-day week Oct. 19.

Then, a second amendment by Mark Ireson to start all face-to-face students five days a week, seconded by immediate past Chairman Michael Hughes, failed in a 2-5 vote.

WHY COULD FIVE DAYS BE BEST?

“Our kids need to be back fully five days a week,” said Ireson, who along with Hughes was outvoted by the rest of the board. Ireson said parents would have problems getting day care for younger students during virtual Wednesdays.

He also said in the work session before Thursday’s meeting that he feared students would leave the county system if they weren’t allowed to be back in the classroom five days a week, although Cox said that the system will keep a Virtual Learning Academy, but not Learning Choice because it has increased enrollment by picking up some former homeschooled students. In addition, the cities would charge tuition for county students and might not have room for them.

Hughes said he feared that high school students floundering with online learning might not pass to the next grade level. He gave statistics from a high school, which he declined to identify, that had 46% of students failing one or more classes, 29% failing two or more, 14% failing three or more and 1% failing all classes.

“I’m afraid we are in a situation where we have students who will never catch up,” Hughes said during the work session.

Cox, during the meeting, said the vast majority of the failing grades were due to assignments not being submitted to teachers, something he said students were being allowed to address.

WHAT WAS THE BOTTOM LINE?

The final vote on the matter was a 5-2 approval of the amendment of the motion by newly elected Chairman Randall Jones to restart face-to-face students on Sept. 28 in elementary and middle schools and Oct. 19 in high schools.

However, Jones said the board could make further changes, if warranted, at the next regular board meeting Oct. 8.

Moreover, Jones and Cox said parents and guardians will have until Wednesday to notify the school system if they want their students to stay in Remote Learning, created before the Aug. 24 hybrid plan was implemented for students who before school started Aug. 5 chose the Virtual Learning Academy.

Students in that academy are committed to stay in it until the end of the fall semester, Cox said.

WHAT ARE VIRTUAL PROGRAMS’ NUMBERS, FUTURES?

The Sullivan County Virtual Learning Academy has 1,741 students: 755 in elementary, 478 in middle school and 498 in high school, while the Learning Choice program has 1,199 students: 249 elementary, 221 middle and 729 high school. Combined, that is about 35% of the more than 8,800 enrolled county students this school year.

Cox and Jones said they envision Learning Choice to end at the semester break and students either would move into face-to-face learning or the Virtual Learning Academy. Kingsport also has a virtual academy that Superintendent Jeff Moorhouse said he believes will remain indefinitely.

Cox said the county academy has attracted former homeschooled students and actually may slightly boost enrollment beyond what it otherwise would have been.