Unicoi County Schools

ERWIN — Unicoi County schools will remain on a virtual schedule for the next three weeks, and education officials hope the COVID-19 spread will have declined by then so they can resume a regular schedule.

Director of Schools Dr. John English announced the decision at Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting.

“I do feel in my heart, right now in the next three weeks, I do feel it would be in the best interest … to continue virtual school until Feb. 8. The percentage of positive cases among school-age children is on an uptick. Kids become carriers,” he said.

“We’ve already had a number of tough conversations with the board since this thing began. This is the toughest one. There are kids who need to and want to be back in school.”

English noted that in the last few weeks, Unicoi County had been hit particularly hard with more cases being reported in the community.

“Particularly in the last few weeks, our community has been hit hard. We currently have some staff that’s hospitalized with COVID. Many of our staff have already had their first round of the vaccine. We have over 40 deaths in Unicoi County now and that’s increased rapidly.”

He also noted that “the percentage of positive cases among school-age children is on an uptick. Kids become carriers. Right now, my thought, as we have vaccinations coming in place, that’s encouraging.”

English said he understood parents’ concerns about getting kids back in school and that kids are falling behind. But he also said he feels if school resumed in person next week, the system would have to shut down again.

Other school systems in the region have been able to return to in-person learning, but English said it’s just not the time for that in Unicoi County.

“I realize parents didn’t want to hear this today. I didn’t want to say it today. Kids are falling behind. ... I certainly understand parents’ and kids’ frustration wanting to be in school. I get that,” he said.

English said the system will address situations where kids have fallen behind in their studies as soon as in-person school is possible.

“The learning loss is real. That’s not lost on anybody,” he said.

English said school officials will reassess the situation on Feb. 4 to make a final determination, but his intention would be for in-person learning to resume Feb. 8.

The board expressed support for English’s decision.

“I would hate to go back to school next week and set us back a month, and that’s honestly that’s what my fear is,” board Chairman Steve Willis said. He pointed out that many school staff and faculty have already had the first round of vaccine, and he hopes by Feb. 8 they would have had time to get the second dose.

Prior to Thursday’s announcement, students were slated to return to in-person learning next week.