Officials at University School are working through tentative plans to reopen the school as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Director Brian Partin said the school is planning to reopen July 20 instead of resuming on July 8 to give officials more time to work through specific plans.

Partin said officials are working through guidelines from state and local health officials as they get set to release detailed protocol to parents and students. He said he wants to make sure the East Tennessee State University-operated school’s plans are following state and Health Department guidelines.

“We have a committee that’s been working at the school to develop our plans and different scenarios when we open up on July 20,” he said, adding that the school is exploring a “hybrid version of remote learning and potentially reducing the number of students meeting in person.”

“We want to make sure we have multiple options available,” Partin said. “Masks, social distancing, those are all things that are being considered and built into some of our options and plans we’re exploring.”

Rob Chittum, whose 16-year-old daughter Aleah is set to begin her junior year of high school, said he’s “very concerned about the push to have kids go back to school given the fact that Tennessee's push to open things up has resulted in a predicted return of escalating infection rates across the region.”

“The national data shows that numbers of infections and deaths are rising nationwide, and Tennessee's numbers are one of a handful of states in which the numbers are increasing at an alarming rate. We have been spared some of the worst here in Northeast Tennessee, but my wife and I feel that opening the schools up is likely to escalate the spread, and this is a concern that has been signaled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well,” Chittum said in a Wednesday email to the Press.

“If the local schools felt that it was a good decision to close schools in March when there were 1,000 cases, why is it somehow safe to reopen when we have 27,000 cases and rapidly rising?”

In recent weeks under the guidance of Gov. Bill Lee, Tennessee has gradually reopened businesses and public institutions, but COVID-19 numbers continue to climb. As of Friday afternoon, the Tennessee Department of Health recorded 29,126 cases and 468 deaths.

Washington County has recorded 88 cases so far.

According to the CDC, there have been more than 2 million cases and nearly 114,000 deaths in the nation as of Friday. 

Despite his family’s concerns, Chittum said he trusts that officials are diligently working to make sound decisions regarding reopening.

“Aleah loves her school and teachers, and we appreciate the difficulty of having to make these important decisions and communicate them to the public,” he said. “We are incredibly grateful to University School leadership and teachers.”

Partin said University School officials are looking for feedback from parents as they work to finalize reopening plans and other contingency plans. He said there’s a lot to consider moving forward.

“Once we’re ready to go and our final plans are approved, we will release that to parents to make sure they know, but we don’t have a specific date at this time,” he said of further announcements. “Our survey is going to be going out to parents probably at the beginning of next week.

“We’re looking at making sure we’re prepared for a variety of options if we have to shift at any point in time throughout the year to be able to go remote or if we need to decrease the number of students meeting in person,” he added. “We’re looking at a continuum of options that would vary based on where we are as a region and school system ...”

Partin said parents’ concerns will be considered as officials draft up specific plans. He said focusing on students’ health and safety is the school's top priority.

“I completely understand there are concerns. I’m a parent myself, and we’re making sure that the safety and health of our students and staff are being considered in our decisions,” he said. “We are taking this very seriously, and we want to ensure the safety of our students.”