KINGSPORT — Kingsport public school students will stay in virtual learning until the Epi Curve goes below 11 new cases of COVID-19 averaged over 14 days per 100,000 population, the Kingsport Board of Education decided in a 3-2 vote on Monday.

However, the board, which met in a called virtual session, may come back to revisit the plan if the pandemic numbers are decreasing. Classes would be in-person in green, 0-5; in-person with additional precautions in yellow, 6-10; and red or all virtual with 11 or more. Monday night’s number of new COVID-19 cases, from Aug. 2, was 17.73.

The Sullivan County school board will make its decision on the matter in a called meeting at 4 p.m. on Friday after reviewing a survey of parents and teachers on the return to school. The city board took public comment on the matter at a called meeting last week.

The more than 7,000-student system is to start virtually on Monday, Aug. 10, and go through Aug. 21. Then, starting Aug. 24, the Epi Curve would determine the way education is delivered, to be announced every Friday after a meeting Thursday with the Sullivan County Regional Health Department.

The decision, with President Jim Welch and members Eric Hyche and Carrie Upshaw voting yes for plan 1 and Vice President Julie Byers and Todd Golden voting no, was the recommendation of Superintendent of Schools Jeff Moorhouse. It stays with the Operations Manual to start the 2020-21 school year amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Welch called it an “exemplary plan” that is “charting uncharted waters.” Regardless of the plan chosen, students and staff are to be required to wear masks per a county order. Plans also are for temperature checks on incoming students.

The other two options were a plan 2 that called for staggered student attendance if COVID-19 got to a middle range or low range and lead into plan 3, which was Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s plan presented last week by Lee and state health and education officials.

However, Hyche and Moorhouse said the flaw in the state plan, or plan 3, called the governor’s plan, is that it includes no metrics for determining low, moderate and high COVID-19 cases. In addition, Moorhouse said, the state plan calls for contact tracing almost impossible to do at the high school level and that could close a classroom, school or the whole system for one to 14 days.

“You could be shutting buildings down every other day,” Moorhouse said.

Hyche said, “They (state officials) did not give us guidance when we needed it.” The Sullivan County Plan was put together starting in late May and presented publicly on July 8. The Sullivan County and Bristol school systems have their own operations manuals based on the countywide plan, done in conjunction with the Sullivan County Regional Health Department.

“At the last minute (July 28), the state gives us guidance,” Hyche said. The school board postponed its decision on the operations manual during a called meeting that evening.

He said an issue with the state plan and plan 2, the staggered attendance one, is that bus drivers, school nutrition workers, nurses and teachers could be quarantined in such numbers as to force the shutdown of all virtual and in-person learning.

Also, he said, an issue with plan 2 and the state plan is that the system could not guarantee six feet of separation between students in all classrooms if more than 50% of in-person students are in school on a given day. About 25% of students have opted for the Virtual Learning Center classes, taught virtually by Kingsport teachers but with content from a third party.

“I can’t make it (six feet of distancing) happen everywhere,” Moorhouse said.

Students in all-virtual learning must stay there for nine weeks in grades K-8 and for the whole semester in grades 9-12. The in-person or face-to-face learners will take their regular classes virtually or in person, depending on the Epi Curve or future board actions.

In-person learning students, even in virtual learning, will have access to their regular classes, including Advanced Placement, honors and career technical courses. The all virtual option has a more limited number of classes, especially at the high school level.

In related action, the board voted 5-0 to approve the purchase of Chromebooks and Chromebook tablets for $233,896 using federal COVID-19 pandemic funding from Firefly Computer LLC, pending approval by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.

The Chromebooks are for grades 3 to take home, while the tablets are for classroom-only use in grades K-2. Those students won’t have school system-issued devices during virtual learning.