As schools in Scott County join the long — and growing — list of schools from across the state that are being forced to close their doors and pivot to virtual instruction due to covid, we’re once again seeing the unfortunate byproduct of the state’s fight with urban school systems like the one in Memphis.
Scott High became the first local school to flip to remote learning on Tuesday, when it was announced that students there would be virtual the rest of the week. Huntsville followed on Wednesday, and will be virtual through Sept. 24.
In both instances, the switch is partially due to the number of students who are isolated or quarantined, and mostly due to a shortage of substitutes to cover the teachers who are isolated or quarantined.
If this were September 2020 rather than September 2021, the entire school system would have likely flipped to virtual for a period of time. This year, though, administrators aren’t being given that option.
But that’s not the only change this year.
With the move to remote learning, all school activities must be canceled. At Scott High, there’s no football game scheduled for Friday; the Highlanders had already canceled their game against Knox Carter. But the Highlander football team is coming out of quarantine today, and could’ve resumed practice on Thursday, if they so chose, to start getting ready for next week’s game at Pigeon Forge. Instead, those players will continue to sit at home for the remainder of the week.
The Scott High soccer team is likewise forced to pause practice until Monday, when they’ll face Oliver Springs in a rescheduled game without having practiced in over a week. Fortunately, the Lady Highlanders did not have a game scheduled for Thursday. Had there been a game on the schedule for then, it would have been canceled. If it were a district game that could not be rescheduled, it would have been forfeited.
Again, if this were September 2020, a brief switch to remote learning would not have necessitated a pause of extra-curricular activities, unless the school chose to do so.
So why are these more restrictive rules being put into place so late in this health crisis? Because state education officials and lawmakers are being overzealous in their efforts to make sure students are physically in school as much as possible.
The issue is that Shelby County Schools, much to the chagrin of conservatives in state government, remained on a remote learning schedule for much of the 2020-2021 school year, even after cases of coronavirus had begun to abate. The school system was following the rules set forth by the state that permitted it to do so, but lawmakers felt the school system was taking advantage of those rules. That’s why Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, a Crossville Republican, threatened earlier in the summer to call the legislature into special session should any school system in Tennessee close or attempt to implement a mask mandate this school year.
Almost everyone — besides, perhaps, education administrators in Memphis — agrees that students need to be in school as much as possible. But reasonable people also agree that isn’t always possible, and local administrators need flexibility in their approach to this virus.
Scott High students can’t physically be in class this week because too many of their teachers are unable to be there. But no one on the school’s soccer team is sick, and only one team member is quarantined. Yet, the soccer team isn’t allowed to step foot into the team facilities until everyone is physically back on campus.
State officials would argue that such regulations are intended to encourage schools to not close unless it’s absolutely unavoidable. But it amounts to punishment for closing school, even though no one who participates in extra-curricular activities had a hand in making the decision to switch to remote learning.
Austin-East (and Knox Central) student-athletes faced the same debacle last week. A-E football players lost a game — which, in turn, meant that Scott High lost a game — not because they were sick or quarantined, but because A-E was forced to switch to remote learning. Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs — a staunch libertarian-minded Republican who is sometimes rumored to be a primary opponent of Gov. Bill Lee next year, though that seems unlikely — and the Knox County Board of Education appealed to the governor to change the rule. A change would have allowed the Austin-East football team — and the Scott High soccer team, and every other extra-curricular program at schools impacted by a switch to remote learning — to continue with their normal schedules. Not surprisingly, the appeal fell on deaf ears.
There will be those who will say that sports should cease if in-person education ceases. But it isn’t a black-and-white, clear-cut issue. If students aren’t sick or quarantined, they shouldn’t be forced to have their extracurricular activities paused. As we argued last year, it’s not like the students are sitting at home and playing X-box. They’re still involved in their studies; they’re just not physically in school. In many cases, virtual learning is more stressful for students than sitting in a classroom. So they shouldn’t be punished with their sports, band events and other activities being canceled.
That’s not to say that local administrators wouldn’t choose to pause all sports and other after-school activities while the school is on a virtual schedule, as an attempt to curb the spread of illness. If that is their call, that’s fair. But they should have the flexibility to make that call, not have the call made for them by people sitting in Nashville with absolutely no skin in the game at the local level.
It’s unfortunate that the state’s fight with urban school districts is spilling over and having an impact on rural school districts hundreds of miles away. And it remains disappointing that government representatives who frequently remind us that Tennessee’s biggest political divide isn’t conservative vs. liberal but urban vs. rural haven’t shown a willingness to step up and have the back of their districts’ rural school systems in this fight.