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Board of Education decides remote option safest for beginning school year

The Unicoi County Board of Education unanimously voted to begin the school year online after days of in-person classroom instruction beginning Aug. 17. (Screenshot captured from Facebook)

By Richard Rourk

Unicoi County Schools will start the year virtually with one week of in-person instruction to prepare students for weeks of online learning. This announcement came during a called Unicoi County Board of Education meeting on Thursday, July 30.

The board unanimously agreed to the following:

• That teachers report on Monday, Aug. 3, in person to get acclimated with the online virtual academy.

• Students will come in to get learning devices – Chromebooks or iPads – on a staggered schedule from Aug. 17-21. (The school system is scheduled to announce in the coming days when each student can come in to get their devices and get acclimated to the online virtual academy. As of The Erwin Record’s press deadline, this schedule has not been released.)

“We will get through it. We just have to deal with it right now.” Unicoi County Board member Glenn Fisher said during Thursday’s meeting.

Unicoi County Board member Steve Willis agreed with Fisher.

“I’ve been involved with this school system for years and this decision has been a very painful one to make. This virus is very cruel,” Willis said. “I have to believe that this is temporary. It could get worse or it could get better. When we ran for school board we had great expectations for helping the school system and making decisions that would help the students and the community. Never did I dream we would have to make a decision around a pandemic. For those that pray, they need to pray for this school system and our community. We are hurting for our students and parents who really need the traditional classroom style of education.”

The decision to start the school year in a different manner was a difficult one, according to Willis.

“This is a tough call,” Willis said. “Online learning is not ideal, but we are here to protect our children and our faculty. I am very proud to serve with each and every member of this board. I know this was a difficult decision and that we have lost sleep over this. Given where our numbers are in the county with the coronavirus and speaking with the health department, I just don’t see how any of our students and staff can come back to a brick and mortar classroom at this time. It would be ideal if we could start school in classrooms – that would definitely be my preference – but we are dealing with unprecedented times and nothing is normal. We have to make sure first and foremost, that we provide safety to our students and staff.”

According to Unicoi County Schools Director John English, Labor Day is the current goal to focus on an in school return.

“This virus and the data that we get every day is very fluid and changes, but I think at this moment Labor Day seems like a good target date for those that wish to return to a physical classroom,” English said. “Like we have all along, we will be trying to get as much feedback from our families and staff to see what they are comfortable with. Hopefully by our target date the numbers start trending the right way so we can get our students back into classrooms.”

A decision of if, or when, those students who wish to return to a physical classroom is scheduled to be made on Wednesday, Sept. 2, at 4 p.m. The proposed scheduled return date for those wishing to return to a physical classroom will be Tuesday, Sept. 8.

Virtual academy will be available throughout the school year, according to officials.