Everything you need to know about going back to school in Hamilton County, TN

Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson announced the new initiative, HCS EdConnect Wednesday afternoon. | Screenshot

Five months after closing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Hamilton County schools are reopening on Aug. 12. 

The new school year usually brings excitement, some nerves + lots of cute pictures with kids standing on porches holding chalkboards that document what grade they are venturing into. 

This year is going to be different, although we’d still love to see those pictures, regardless of what school looks like for you this year. 

Until then, we’re going to break down the going-back-to-school-during-a-pandemic situation. 👇 But first, officials made a major, related announcement Wednesday.

📚 Free internet for students 

Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson joined Mayors Andy Berke and Jim Coppinger, as well as EPB President + CEO David Wade and other leaders, for a major announcement. They said will put Chattanooga on the map again as a tech leader, similar to how the community led the way by being the first municipality to offer the gig after building out fiber optics infrastructure in 2010.

  • Through an initiative called HCS EdConnect, 28,500 economically challenged students who attend Hamilton County schools will get free, high-speed internet access to their homes. 
  • This initiative will impact 17,000 homes. (Meaning parents and other family members can use the service, too).
  • The service will be available to students who qualify for free/reduced lunch, as determined by federal government guidelines
  • Officials said that — as far as they know — Hamilton County is the first area to offer something like this. 
  • School officials will contact parents via call, text, or email about the service. Once the family receives information about the program from the district, parents will have the opportunity to opt-in, and EPB will contact them to set up the service.
  • It will take a few months to get everyone set up.
  • This is a 10-year commitment, not just an initiative to happen during COVID-19. 
  • It’s being paid for by the city, county + partners. 
  • Hamilton County schools have raised $6 million toward the upfront infrastructure investment of $8.2 million. 
  • Both the city and county have put in $1.5 million toward the costs. 
  • Funding partners also include BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation, and the Smart City Venture Fund, which includes Benwood Foundation, Community Foundation, Footprint Foundation, and Robert L. And Katherina Maclellan Foundation.
  • Check out more information here and here.  

📚 So, what’s the plan for going back to school?

This graphic outlines the phases + learning options for the new school year. | Hamilton County schools
  • The school system has created a phased plan that depends on the number of active COVID-19 cases. If schools were to open today (Wednesday, July 29), we’d be in phase 3. Check out the different phases here
  • Phase 3 = schools are open with some campuses doing hybrid or remote learning. 
  • Parents can also opt to enroll at Hamilton County Virtual School. This is a self-directed, self-paced option for grades K-12, And it relies more on families for curriculum support. 

📚 What about masks?

If we’re in phase 2 or 3, all students and staff will be required to wear face coverings, with some exceptions — K-2 students have some flexibility to remove masks as long as they are in a classroom with the same group of students they see daily. Another exception is when students + staff are in a well-ventilated area that can accommodate social distancing, such as when outside or in a large gym.

Quoteworthy: “Until the Tennessee Department of Health tells us otherwise, we will be treating face masks as a required part of the school dress code in much the same way as we require students to wear shirts, shoes, and other appropriate attire.” – Hamilton County schools statement 

  • The mask decision is from state officials. 
  • Refusal to wear a face mask — without approved accommodation — will be treated as a dress code violation, and students may be asked to consider a remote learning option. 
  • School officials said they didn’t have problems with families or students refusing to wear masks during the summer program.
  • Teachers will be given a PPE kit and students will be given face coverings. But students and staff are also welcome to bring their own masks as long as they follow guidelines. Those guidelines will be outlined on July 31, according to the school system’s FAQ list. 

📚 Socially distanced celebration 

This may be weird + stressful, but school officials are still celebrating the beginning of a new school year. 

On Sat., Aug. 8 from 10 a.m.-1 p.m., there will be a no-contact, drive-thru celebration for families to get free backpacks filled with supplies.

📚Tax-free weekend 

Tennessee’s tax-free weekends are just around the corner. From July 31 to Aug. 2, up to $200 worth of clothing + other back-to-school items can be purchased tax-free. Restaurant food + drink will be tax-free Aug. 7-9. For more information and to see what qualifies as a tax-free purchase, click here.

📚 From the state

  • On July 28, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced the state’s recommendations to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year. The recommendations include providing parents the opportunity to choose which learning platform is best for their child, participating in contact tracing, and providing free resources to supplement the districts’ school-based services.
  • Lee also announced that he will sign Executive Order No. 55, which will allow TSSAA member schools to resume contact sports with specific guidelines. Coaches will be asked to view the free online “COVID-19 for Coaches and Administrators” course, and players will be required to file a pre-participation physical with the school office. Read all of TSSAA’s “Tennessee Returns to Playhere