Students have returned to school in parts of Tennessee; here's how it's going

Parents say they are worried, but optimistic, and they have faith in their school leaders.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

The first wave of students headed back to school last week amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, and Kayla Jackson's 10-year-old son Camden Taylor was among them.

“This is definitely something that I had never foreseen happening, choosing do you send your child to school or you don’t? In this time, right now, I don’t have a choice. It is very unfortunate and it’s very scary,” the single mom, who works as a claims representative, told TODAY Parents. “But I trust the teachers and the administrators.”

Kayla Jackson's son, Camden Taylor, feels excited to start classes again, even if it is one day a week with social distancing and masks. Courtesy Kayla Jackson

Camden disliked virtual learning and missed his teachers and friends. When Alcoa City Schools in Tennessee announced the district was opening — one of the first districts in the nation to do so —Jackson knew she wanted Camden to attend. She says she feels like the district is being extremely safe. At most, there are seven children per class and each student attends school once a week, with schedules based on their last name. Teachers must wear masks but for students it's optional. And, everyone receives a temperature check before entering.

“My child, he wanted the structure,” she said. “Life as we see it has been a blur and a twister for our children.”

According to the district’s website, there are 1,969 students in pre-K though 12. On Friday Rebecca Stone, director of Alcoa City Schools, announced on the website that "an individual" at the middle school tested positive for COVID-19. The district notified people who came into contact with that person, and those people have to quarantine for 14 days unless they have a negative coronavirus test or a doctor's note.

Blount County, where Alcoa is located, had only 728 cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, according to Knox News. Even with the positive case, Jackson is sending Camden to school.

“I’m a single mom and work 40-plus hours. I have to pray and hope for the best,” she said via text.

Amar’e McKenzie loved his first day of school because he was “news famous” after being on the TODAY broadcast last week. Even with the positive case, he'll continue to go to school.

“I knew it was going to happen eventually. It was a little faster than I thought but I believe the school system handled it quickly and efficiently,” mom Lataya McKenzie told TODAY Parents via text. “Overall I still have faith in our school system, teachers and staff. As we are all going through this together and learning together. The school also did not try to hide it from us.”

The McKenzies feel that sending their children back to school is the best thing for them and believe their school district is making everything as safe as possible for the students.

Amar’e really wanted to return to school, too. He felt sad that he wouldn’t be playing football and he missed his friends. His parents also wanted him and sister, Tayana, who is going to preschool, to enjoy some moments when life feels like it did prior to the pandemic.

“One of the big reasons we decided to send our kids back is because we don’t want them to be scared of what’s going on,” she told TODAY Parents. “We want to still keep what they know as normal as much as possible.”

Chasity Ledbetter is a single mom and has three children, Keriona, 4, in pre-K, Liberty, 5, in kindergarten and Jamerius, 11. Each child attends school on a different day for now, though that will change for her daughters after the first two weeks. So far, Ledbetter is impressed.

“Everything was very well coordinated. It made me feel really good the way that they have done it,” she told TODAY Parents. “My children, they all had a great day.”

Ledbetter works and attends school herself, so coordinating virtual learning with her schedule felt grueling at times. Her children also really missed their teachers and friends. Jamerius has asthma; Ledbetter says she believes that wearing a mask, adhering to social distancing and hand washing will keep him safe.

“Any bit of normalcy that they could have for this moment, they’ve just grasped it for what it’s worth because it’s been months and months, stuck in the house and being very limited in what we can do, where we can go,” she said. “We’re taking full advantage of this normalcy and they’ve definitely been very excited about (school). And enjoyed it.”

While Chasity Ledbetter considered all virtual school for her children, she knew they longed to return to school and have a bit of normalcy in their lives. Courtesy Chasity Ledbetter

She hopes that when people hear about her decision and that of other parents in the district, they won't be judgmental.

"Don't knock the parents," she said. "Everybody's story is different ... you do what you need to do for your family and your lifestyle."

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