Business as usual for schools: Embry

Saturday, May 2, 2020

School Superintendent Don Embry’s monthly report shared during Bedford County Board of Education’s business meeting Tuesday placed a great deal of emphasis on how the school system’s biggest “elephant in the room” at this time is trying to finish final grades and conduct graduations.

“The high schools are working very hard right now to get credits calculated . . . credit recovery. Our first focus is on seniors . . . cap and gowns, drop offs and pick ups.”

Embry told board members he could best describe March’s abrupt school closing due to COVID-19 as an all-out “scramble.” Still, he praised his school staff, both certified and non-certified, for adjusting to the crisis and going about the business of education as “normal” as possible.

“We’re trying to conduct business as usual, the best that we can,” Embry said.

Virtual teaching

Teachers are currently operating virtual classrooms and getting subject resources to students the best way possible, Embry said. Because the school doors were closed quickly in early March, Embry said principals will have to notify students soon of when to pick up their personal belongings and clean out their lockers. He said such simple things as students returning library books has to be added to the mix.

Principals have been asked to have plans in place in case Gov. Bill Lee allows teachers to return soon to school sites. Those work schedules will likely be staggered until the pandemic is over, Embry said. “As soon as we can get guidance from the state, we’ll get folks [teachers] back into the buildings.”

The bottom line, the state will decide when grades need to be finalized for graduation. Embry said a lot of board business is also around the corner, but still contingent upon state decisions, such as the deadline for teachers being rehired for next school year.

“Our main focus right now is on the seniors,” Embry said.

Timing it right

Embry said he hopes that graduation will continue on the schedule currently planned: June 24 (Cascade); June 25 (SCHS) and June 26 (Community), all starting at 7 p.m. at Calsonic Arena.

He acknowledged that this is the tentative time of the rescheduled Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration Spring Fun Show, normally held in late May at the Celebration grounds. Embry said while this is not ideal, he had to work with the Celebration’s schedule, and could still have to look at an alternative site, should the coronavirus push graduation ceremonies further the busy horse show season.

“They are having the Fun Show outside,” Embry explained.

Board member Brian Crews had some questions for Embry about his instructional expectations of teachers going forth into the rest of the academic year. The superintendent said much of what teachers do from this point forward will be dictated by the Tennessee Department of Education, Tennessee School Board Association and of course, the governor.

“There has to be consistency across the board,” said Embry. “A lot of that comes from the state.”

However, he said, in the interim, teachers will continue to instruct off-site.

Help wanted

The longtime educator told board members that some parents have contacted him saying their child’s teacher has not reached out to them regarding homework, etc. since schools closed. The superintendent said that is likely for the most part due to the school system not being privy to updated email addresses, physical addresses and phone numbers. Embry advised many teachers have responded that they have tried to contact parents numerous times but never get a reply.

The superintendent added that amidst the pandemic, school system personnel has been made greatly aware just how many local households are still without internet access. This has been a big eye-opener, not just for Bedford County, Embry said. He predicts there will be a greater push to provide more internet services in the future, particularly to those living in rural areas.

“Education as we know it is going to change, as we know it,” Embry said. “One big thing . . . lack of internet access across the county.”

Bedford County has plans to set up hot spot areas in the future for students who need that internet access, Embry said. Time and dollars will dictate how that is accomplished.

Costly challenge

Embry said a financial burden has been placed on the school system by having to provide packets of resource materials to students without internet access. Since the nutrition department continues to provide breakfasts and lunches to a large part of the study body, teachers have sent materials home this way to students, he said.

“It’s been a huge challenge,” said Embry.

He was complimentary of the child nutrition department, teachers and volunteers who’ve worked endlessly to provide student meals. He informed BCBE members that in the 15 days schools have been closed, the nutrition department has served a total of 106,296 meals to kids.

Embry was empathetic to educators beginning to feel “overwhelmed” by potentially being exposed to the virus through the school feed program. To reduce their potential exposure, Embry said the school system is now conducting once-a-week pick ups of breakfasts and lunches.

The superintendent advised board members to look at the school’s Facebook page (Bedford County, TN-Public Schools) page for pictures of the work being done by the nutrition department, volunteers and educators. He complimented Eakin Elementary, which distributed 1,200 food bags on Tuesday.

“They’re doing a fantastic job.”