The County School Board, after two and a half hours of often heated discussion, voted 5-4 against a plan that would have put students in K-5 back in school four days a week.
However, the board afterwards unanimously supported a resolution initiated by Chairman Joe Wingate that directs Supt. Bryan Johnson to come up with plans that get students back into the classroom "as quickly and as safely as possible."
Chairman Wingate said, "This allows Dr. Johnson to look at options as the COVID-19 numbers come down."
Several board members said this was an administrative matter and the board should not have been getting involved in the staff's purview. Board members Rhonda Thurman and Joe Smith said those taking that position were "cowards." Ms. Thurman said the board advises the superintendent on all sorts of issues.
Board member Tucker McClendon, who worked earlier Thursday with Supt. Johnson to come up with the initial motion, said the Tennessee School Board Association advises boards to get involved in COVID closing issues.
Marco Perez, another board member, said, "People are hurting. Children are falling apart. It's truly painful. But I hope we get to the end of this school year without losing a teacher or a staff member."
Jenny Hill made a motion to table the McClendon motion, saying "it is not the role of the board to make operational decisions."
Karitsa Mosley Jones acknowledged that many are anxious for in-person school to resume, but she stressed the safety and health factor. She said, "I don't do what other people want. I do what I think is right. I would rather stay the course and be more careful."
Steve Highlander said he was among board members getting hundreds of calls and emails on the issue. He said parents favored a return to school by about 70 to 30, while teachers opposed it about 70-30.
Voting to support the motion to table were Ms. Hill, Tiffanie Robinson, Mr. Highlander, Ms. Jones and Mr. Perez.
The County Schools stayed in the classroom for 84 days, then shifted to virtual learning as COVID numbers spiked several weeks ago.
Mr. Wingate and Supt. Johnson noted that COVID case numbers in Hamilton County have been dropping to in the 200s per day. They said they are "trending downward."
Two physicians that advise school officials, Dr. Stephen Adams and Dr. Charles Woods, agreed that case numbers are down as well as the number of those hospitalized and in Intensive Care Units.
Dr. Woods said he did not see a problem with the schools "relaxing a bit" on a case scale that recently caused the schools to close. He said it has been found that in most cases elementary age students are not apt to get the virus or to transmit it, though that is not always the case.
Several board members said they definitely want students in school, but they said a priority is the safety of teachers and staff from the deadly virus.
The McClendon motion did not have 6-12 going back now. He said the board did not need to rush and "shoot ourselves in the foot."
As many as 1,400 people viewed the board meeting online.