PARIS TN: PSSD board delays opening of schools

Paris Special School District Director of Schools Norma Gerrell (seated, back left) prepares for Saturday’s board meeting as board members (from back) Jon Davidson, John Steele, Troy Barrow and Bill Jelks get ready to discuss the school year. They were on the stage at the Krider Performing Arts Center after the meeting was moved to allow for more people to attend.

The Paris Special School District board voted Saturday to push the beginning of the school year back two weeks, just two days before what had been the scheduled opening day.

The board had a called meeting, at which concern was expressed about whether the district was ready to begin school Monday. The majority of the board felt more preparation time was needed, so the start date was pushed back to Aug. 17.

The board voted, 5-2, for that change. Voting yes were Amy Cathey, Jon Davidson, Troy Barrow, Richard Edwards and Missy Klutts. Voting no were Bill Jelks and John Steele.

That was a reversal of course for the board, which had just met Wednesday and chosen at that time to keep the opening day as Aug. 3.

The afternoon meeting was moved from the PSSD offices to the Krider Performing Arts Center in order to allow more room for those attending.

During discussion, the board members mainly talked about whether those students who will be studying through virtual learning, as well as their parents and teachers, were ready to go on Monday.

“Since our meeting on Wednesday, there have been some concerns raised about the preparation level we have. The numbers of students signed up for our virtual learning have ballooned in recent days,” said Barrow, the board chairman.

Director of Schools Norma Gerrell said that 307 students in the PSSD had chosen virtual learning as of Friday. The PSSD has about 1,600 total students.

Gerrell said that, of those 307 virtual students, 101 don’t have a computer at home and will need to be given one. She also said there’s an issue with the number of internet hot spots available for those students.

Cathey, who attended the meeting via conference call, made the motion to delay the start of the school year.

“Things have changed in the last few days,” she said, referring to ever-increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community.

“Parents need to learn how to get their students into the virtual learning. The ones I’ve heard from are not comfortable and need more time. They don’t want to just hit the ground running on Monday,” Cathey said.

Davidson empasized the district’s staff, principals and teachers need to be fully prepared before the clock starts running on the new year.

Steele reiterated his belief that there will still be concerns even after a delay.

“With the virtual learning, some parents are going to get it right off the bat. Some will take two or three weeks, and that’s going to be the case if we start Monday, if we start the next Monday, or if we start the next Monday after that,” Steele said.

Klutts and Steele pointed out they feel teachers need to be in school next week even though the school year won’t be starting, getting ready.

“Teachers need to be at the schools every day and being active in learning their roles, whether it’s with the virtual learning or getting their classrooms ready,” Steele said.

Davidson said he wasn’t concerned so much with how long the teachers were at school, just that he wanted it to be “quality practice” time.

“Whether it’s learning the computers, getting the computers to the kids, cleaning the schools, practicing the temperature-taking that will have to be done when the kids get off the buses, let’s make sure we’re prepared,” Davidson said.

“Any more preparation time we can give them, the better,” Barrow agreed.

Jelks, however, pointed out that there are financial ramifications of having those teachers at work before the school year starts.

“We’re asking our contracted people to do more than what they’re contracted for,” Jelks said.

“I don’t expect the teachers to be there every day (prior to Aug. 17),” Cathey said.

“Our teachers are not hourly workers, they’re salaried. We have to pay them whether they’re at school one hour or eight hours,” Jelks said.

Barrow said the financial impact is something “we’ll have to own at our August meeting.”

As far as the preparation for in-school learning, Gerrell said the state Education Department has sent all the PPE (personal protection equipment) that is needed, and that it’s in the school buildings now.

Davidson also touched on the fact there’s a possibility the PSSD may only be in school for a brief time before the state might force the schools to close if the pandemic continues to grow. He suggested the early part of the school year be devoted to training all the students on virtual learning in case the entire system has to go to that quickly after the beginning of school.

There is a meeting planned for Monday for parents of the virtual students, at which they’ll be receiving training on how to log in and what the process will be for the virtual learning.

The PSSD includes Inman Middle School for grades 6-8, Paris Elementary School for grades 3-5 and Rhea Elementary School for grades K-2.

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