WISE — A vote to bring Wise County public school students back to school five days a week saw a last-minute change Tuesday as board members wrestled with details, county COVID-19 health trends and some students and parents calling for a return to in-person instruction.

School board members and the public were greeted by Eastside High School students outside the meeting site bearing signs calling for a return to in-school classes. Demonstration organizers Miranda Raymond — wife of school board member Mark Raymond — and Eastside teachers and parents Brandy Jones and Lara Kennedy all said that county students need to return to school because of the lower quality of online instruction compared to students and teachers together in the classroom.

“As a parent, I see how much my son is missing,” Jones said.

“I believe the virus is real, but it’s a virus,” Raymond said. “We’re seeing kids with depression. Our kids are happier in school.”

Jones said she felt that the school system’s preparations for social distancing, cleaning and other COVID-19 control measures makes the schools safer than when students and their parents go out to stores or other public spaces.

“The kids who need to go to school should be back in school,” Jones said.

The school board discussed several aspects of in-school classes restarting after an emergency board vote Aug. 18 to go with all-virtual classes in the wake of rising COVID-19 infection rates across the county. When the emergency closing of school classrooms was approved in August, that action came with a requirement for the board to review health metrics progress Tuesday and decide whether to restart in-school instruction on Sept. 21.

Tuesday’s meeting also revealed some details about how many Wise County school personnel have been infected or exposed to COVID-19 in recent weeks. Superintendent Greg Mullins and staff told the board that two faculty or staff at Union Primary School are still in area hospitals recovering from infections, while another staffer is working from home. One staffer at Union Middle School was due to leave quarantine on Wednesday while another is awaiting test results after exposure to an infected person. Union High School has one staffer in quarantine until Oct. 1, and Coeburn Middle School has a staffer awaiting test results.

More than 20 cases have been reported among all county schools, Mullins said.

Wise County Education Association president Paul Clark, in his monthly report to the board, said he was conflicted about whether students and teachers should return. He said that two of his fellow teachers at Union Primary had only recently been taken off ventilators and were still in intensive care.

“The fear is real,” Clark said. “Let’s do it all at once or let’s stay at the house.”

During public comment, students, two nurse practitioners, a parent and a teacher raised concerns over the COVID-19 situation and the schools.

Central High School senior Hannah McAmis complained that “virtual learning is hard” because of the lack of in-person interaction between teacher and students and impacts on students’ preparedness for college. She said that East Tennessee schools have been open and with sports, while Norton’s school system has been open with in-person classes since August.

Pound resident and parent Rachel Sturgill said the board should be concerned about student depression along with students who face abuse at home.

“(COVID-19) can be deadly for some, but so can shellfish and peanuts,” Sturgill said. “There’s more at stake than a virus, a virus with a 99% recovery rate that has only affected 382 people in this county.”

Nurse practitioner Melissa Begley said she and her physician husband have seen the effects of the emergency closing among patients and parents at their pediatric practice. She said that summer vacations typically result in loss of knowledge retention among students, with the statewide spring schools closing and the county’s fall emergency closing.

Coeburn nurse practitioner Whitney Brooke Mays said the board needed to acknowledge that COVID-19 is not going away soon.

“It’s like the flu and it’s going to spread,” Mays said, echoing Begley’s concerns about family tensions over virtual learning frustrations.

“Given the choice, I want my kids in school five days a week,” Mays said.

Superintendent Mullins told the board that, while in-person classes are the ideal option for student instruction, a hybrid schedule as the county began the fall would allow compliance with state guidelines for social distancing. Asked about bringing students back for a four- or five-day school week, he said that would cause problems with sixfoot social distancing as well as spacing students on school buses.

A five-day school week for all students would mean that six-foot social distancing guidelines could not be followed, Mullins said, and all students would have to wear masks at all times in classes and on buses. Preparations to return to in-person classes, even with a hybrid schedule, would mean waiting until Sept. 28 to start in order to give schools time to see how many parents wanted their children to return to school or maintain virtual instruction only.

Board member Martha Jett moved to have students return to school five days a week, with board member Mark Raymond seconding. In the middle of the vote, with six board members split on the motion, board member Phillip Bates said he couldn’t vote on the plan until he had more information on numbers of students returning to classes and using county bus transportation. After consulting with board attorney Scott Mullins, board Chairman Larry Greear let the motion vote continue for a 4-4 tie.