Tennessee Department of Education to release district guidance for meal service, technology and more as schools reopen this fall

classroom
The toolkits include guidance on a number of topics, including the role technology may play in in-person or remote learning as well as how meals should be served in school to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. (Courtesy Pexels)

The toolkits include guidance on a number of topics, including the role technology may play in in-person or remote learning as well as how meals should be served in school to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. (Courtesy Pexels)

As districts across the state finalize plans for students to return to school in August, the Tennessee Department of Education is working to release two dozen sets of toolkits for districts that will reopen for the first time since early March.

The toolkits include guidance on a number of topics, including the role technology may play in in-person or remote learning as well as how meals should be served in school to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“Our department has invested a tremendous amount of time, thoughtfulness, and expertise to ensure we provide the best guidance for district and school leaders as they make local decisions, and I am grateful for the effort across the department and state,” TDOE Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a release.

The department issued its first two sets of toolkits June 16 and 17, and more are planned for later in the month of June, according to a schedule on the department's website.

Guidance released to date includes:


School nutrition: Guidance includes a checklist for closing out summer meals programs and working with vendors and staff to establish meal service procedures. Suggestions to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus include serving meals in classrooms, staggering students and meal times, taking meal orders in classrooms and emailing them to kitchens or having students pick up meals at entrances. The TDOE also reminds districts that more families may now qualify for meal benefits as a result of COVID-19 and that it is important to communicate that families can submit applications for free or reduced-price meals. Districts should also have procedures in place for continuing meal service in the events that schools close.

Technology: Guidelines include surveying students and staff to determine how many have access to computers and internet for at-home use. Suggestions for increasing internet access include extending Wi-Fi service into school parking lots for student use and/or using school buses equipped with technology to serve as mobile hot spots.

Well-being and mental health: Suggestions from this toolkit include providing a webpage for families with resources for food and rent assistance, free mental health counseling and telehealth service options. Staff are also advised on exercises to use to encourage students to share how they are feeling as well as establishing start-of-day routines.

Counseling: Guidance is included for elementary, middle and high school campuses and includes checklists for districts to use to ensure students have access to resources and receive emotional support.

Early childhood education: The guidelines recognize that parents of young children may need more reassurance that their children will be safe and includes plans on who to talk to families about the importance of good hygiene. Suggestions include keeping students 6 feet apart during mealtimes and reconsidering the use of shared objects, such as toys and pillows.

Consolidated funding: With more funding being used to provide more learning resources to students, the TDOE has issued a checklist to help districts find federal funding to meet the needs of at-risk groups and to determine how to spend funding.

Transportation: Districts are advised to survey families about transportation needs before the start of the school year to determine if demand has changed from prior years. Should ridership go down, districts are advised to use more buses with fewer riders to ensure social distancing. Suggestions also include conducting health screenings at bus stops and determining whether face coverings will be required for students and/or drivers.

Special populations: Guidance from the department includes having districts designate a contact person for each population of students including at-risk students, students with disabilities and English language learners to address unique needs. Districts are asked to communicate return-to-school plans with parents and complete any evaluations and assessments of student needs before the start of the school year.

Future topics for toolkits include guidance for nonpublic and charter schools, staffing and student learning assessments.
By Wendy Sturges
A Houston native and graduate of St. Edward's University in Austin, Wendy Sturges has worked as a community journalist covering local government, health care, business and development since 2011. She has worked with Community Impact since 2015 as a reporter and editor and moved to Tennessee in 2019.