A different kind of September

Betty BeanKnox Scene

Remember when September 1 marked the beginning of school – the real first day of the year for families with kids in school? We moved up a grade, got new teachers, tried out for chorus or the school paper, played football or marched in the band, made new friends and caught up with old ones, sang Top 40 songs on the booster bus to away games, got new school clothes, rode the tilt-a-whirl at the fair.

This pandemic year has brought us a whole different kind of September, and nothing’s quite in sync.

My first “school column” this year was about the search for 16-year-old student who’d gotten caught smoking a joint in the South-Doyle High School parking lot. The boy, who is Black and a standout athlete, panicked when Sheriff’s deputies put him in handcuffs. He took off running. A two-hour, dogs-and helicopters manhunt ensued before he was apprehended nearby. He was taken into custody and held in quarantine at the juvenile detention center because of COVID-19 concerns.

In researching the story, we learned that his family is homeless.

A lot of good things happened afterward. Hundreds of people came together to help, thanks largely to the efforts of 2010 South-Doyle graduate Zar Omari, who started a Gofundme drive to help the family find housing. Omari, who was one of two students of Middle Eastern descent during his high school years, remembers that it was hard to be a minority at that school. He did well academically, but was frequently subjected to racial epithets and Bin-Laden jokes. He’s gotten past it now – he has a degree and a good job – but was moved to try and help the kid who got busted for smoking pot. His Gofundme campaign to help the family find housing collected $4,894 before he shut it down.

Omari didn’t stop there – he teamed up with former Knox County Commissioner Diane Jordan and found housing for the family (not an easy thing to pull off on short notice), and advanced two months’ rent out of his own bank account since it takes more than a week to access Gofundme proceeds. He, Jordan, Ann Dingus, state Rep. Gloria Johnson, South-Doyle area resident Leslie Kurtz and several others pitched in.

The student’s mother says she is deeply grateful to Omari and all who helped.

“It was God-sent,” she said. “All of y’all were my angels. Please tell everybody I said thanks.”

Meanwhile, the school system continues to wrestle with pandemic-related issues complicating re-opening schools. One of the biggest problems is a continuing shortage of substitute teachers.

A young mother with children in pre-school and second grade considered becoming a sub but was stymied by the process. Her suggestion:

Stop charging an application fee.

Here’s what she shared in a recent Facebook post:

“So, I had considered being a substitute teacher this year. Pretty much the only job I can think of that jives with school … The total cost for me to do that would be close to $130, after paying for all the requirements. Seems to me, there would probably be more people willing to do this if that didn’t have to PAY, just to apply. Like seriously, it doesn’t pay that much to begin with. Come on KCS, that’s probably part of the problem finding subs.”

She said she can’t afford to apply.

Meanwhile, a group of west Knox parents pushing for an end to “virtual” instruction in favor of “in-person” classrooms have so far fallen short of their evident goal to flood the school board with demands to declare teachers “essential” workers and force the system to fully re-open schools. Here’s an example of the emails board members have received from about eight email addresses:

“Please remember that 70% of families in Knox County are attending in-person learning & depend on teachers being deemed essential & schools staying open. We are asking that our teachers become ESSENTIAL which would mean they are able to remain in the classroom teaching our kids. This would help with the teacher shortage that has already closed one school as well. Also, our students do not need to be put into isolation unnecessarily and it is essential that they remain in school to learn.”

Like everything else in this crazy year, public education is a work in progress in 2020.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.


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