School System Must Begin to Prepare Now

By Steve Hunley

Bob Thomas, superintendent of the Knox County School system, was recently interviewed by another media outlet and stated plainly, “We weren’t prepared” for the coronavirus.  Nobody was, nor could they be.

As I said in a recent editorial, our governments, at every level, and our society, will have to have on-going conversations about changes wrought by the arrival of the coronavirus.  If it is true, as many experts suspect, that the fall may bring a renewal of the virus, then it is vitally important school systems around the country, and here in Knox County, begin having a conversation about what steps to take.  That becomes especially important if our school system has to shut down for a couple of weeks or a month in the fall to halt the spread of the virus.

The coronavirus has certainly made itself felt and will continue to do so.  Not only has it left fatalities in its wake, but also financial hardship and ruin.  As this is being written, there are over thirty million Americans who are out of work because of the shutdown to curb the spread of the virus.  Small businesses have been really hard hit and local governments, like everybody else, are doing their best to find a way to return to sound footing.  Mayor Glenn Jacobs has initiated furloughs for numerous county employees, but let us not forget the biggest slice of pie in Knox County is the school system and the sheriff’s department.  Between them, the school system and the sheriff’s department represent somewhere between 75-85% of the county’s entire budget.  The school system spends local, state and federal tax dollars amounting to over half a billion dollars.  Jacobs is going to have a mighty hard time balancing the budget on the backs of everybody else without the cooperation of the school system and the sheriff’s department.

Presently, Superintendent Thomas is exploring a variety of ways to balance his budget. The shutdown of the economy, to the surprise of no one except perhaps for a few economic illiterates and empty-headed socialists, will cause some very hard choices to be made. These hard choices are going to exact a toll and it will likely be fearsome.

There is apparently a hole blown in Davidson County’s budget in excess of $200 million.  The mayor of Memphis says unless there is some federal intervention, their budget situation will be “catastrophic.”  There will be similar problems in most or all Tennessee counties.  Still, there are those who are tone deaf.

Currently it seems to me the school system has two really important tasks: formulate a reasonable budget and come up with a sound distance learning program to deploy in the event schools have to be closed again in the fall due to another serious outbreak of the coronavirus.

That should be very much on the minds of responsible board members.  Students and their parents have already seen several rites of passage into adulthood disappear like mist in the morning sun; families watching a young man or woman accept his or her diploma probably won’t happen this year.  There will be no proms as long as we have social distancing.  Several school principals took it upon themselves, before grasping the seriousness of the virus, to announce there would most certainly be graduation ceremonies where they would personally hand out diplomas and of course there would be proms for all to enjoy.  The fact that principals would arbitrarily make public announcements to that effect should not have happened without the central office’s approval.

What we do know is this: in the fall the coronavirus won’t be new to a single soul.  The board of education and the superintendent won’t have any acceptable excuses to make if they fail to adopt a program anticipating a fall closure of school while still continuing to deliver educational services.  The school system has done a remarkable job of feeding youngsters during the pandemic, yet their primary mission is educating youngsters.  Knox Countians will be waiting for an answer to the question: are you prepared for what might be coming?