BACK TO SCHOOL: Tennessee to allow for sports to return, extend local mask mandates and provide guidance on coronavirus

(Courtesy Adobe Stock)
(Courtesy Adobe Stock)

(Courtesy Adobe Stock)

As Tennessee moves forward with a return to school—some districts virtually, others in person—state officials are planning for student services and activities as well as how to prepare teachers who will work to keep classrooms safe.

Gov. Bill Lee held a press briefing July 28 to discuss some of the plans for how the 2020-21 school year will start, which included an order allowing sports to return and an allocation of resources for teachers.

To date, officials said 145 out of 147 public school districts have plans to open with at least some in-person instruction, although some have delayed the start of school. The state is expected to launch a page on the education department website that will allow residents to see which districts will have in-person and/or remote instruction.

“The decisions to reopen schools are based on the health and safety of children,” Lee said. “We’ve outlined the risks associated with children not being in school; we’ve outlined all of the dangers and all of the negative impacts that, that has on kids—and so we weigh our approach to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, which we are aggressively pursuing on a daily basis, with a need to safely put kids back in the classroom. This decision on in-person learning is based on what’s best for kids. That’s how we’ve made the determination to move forward.”

Return to school sports, health care services

Lee said he will soon sign an executive order that will allow school sports to return this fall under the guidelines of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association and the Tennessee Pledge.

“It’s an important part of our community, athletics, and it provides a lot of benefits to our student athletes, but however, we have to remember, common-sense precautions have to be taken in the midst of COVID-19 in order for any return to play to actually make it through the season,” Lee said.

According to Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, the return to school is important to both mental and physical health as many students rely on the health care that schools supply.

“I want you to remember there’s so much more that children get at schools in addition to an education,” Piercey said. “As a pediatrician and a mother, I know we’re all focused on the holistic well-being of the child.”

While Piercey said the state is expecting to have new cases of the virus as students return to school, research show students are not as likely to spread the coronavirus as adults.

Additionally, children are also more likely to have mild symptoms or by asymptomatic if infected. A July 24 press briefing on the reopening of schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expressed a similar statement.

While many parents and teachers are focused on the coronavirus, Piercey said the TDH is also concerned about the number of students who have not had regular childhood vaccines that many districts require before beginning the school year.

“Right now, we are 43% lower in immunizations than we were this time last year, in childhood immunizations,” she said. “That means almost half of the kids that should have gotten shots haven’t gotten them.”

Piercey said this lower rate is likely due to decreased movement as families remain home; however, she said parents should be advised that it is safe to go to a doctor’s office and get routine exams and vaccinations.

Mask mandates

Lee said he will also be signing an executive order that will extend the powers for local governments to mandate face masks. The previous order was expected to expire Aug. 3.

Lee has stated he is against a statewide mandate for residents to wear masks; however, he said he believes local leaders should have the ability to mandate masks as they are effective in preventing the spread of the virus.

“My belief is that wearing a mask is a safe way to keep our economy open, to keep our schools open and the best way to implement that in a sustainable way is to use the targeted approach that we’re having,” Lee said.

Student services

Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said Tennessee’s return to school is important to provide students with additional services they may not receive at home, such as mental health support, adults to report child abuse and food service.

“Millions of students went hungry this summer,” Schwinn said. “Many, many students in the state of Tennessee rely on our schools for breakfast, lunch, supper and snack. So, it’s critically important that regardless of what happens in terms of local decisions, we provide all of our students with these critical services and supports to ensure that they are taken care of.”

Additionally, the state saw a 27% drop in reports during school closures of suspected child abuse and reported that 75% of students depend on schools for mental health services.

Schwinn said while many students have an environment at home where they can learn virtually, many students do not, and that many have suffered from the loss of months of instruction.

As a result, schools will issue start-of-school checkpoint assessments to help determine how students were affected academically, as many students suddenly had to adapt to remote learning when Tennessee schools closed in March.

“We know that with months and months of time away from classroom-based instruction, many of our students are going to experience significant learning loss, and that hits our vulnerable students more than anybody else,” Schwinn said.

Materials for teachers

For educators, 80,000 teacher kits will be distributed statewide with a year’s supply of face masks, disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer, Schwinn said. School nurses will also be provided with personal protective equipment.

“We never want our teachers feeling that they have to take out of their own pocketbooks to make sure that they can keep their classrooms safe and healthy,” she said.

Schwinn said, so far, Tennessee is the only state in the country that plans to send out the kits, which will be distributed through the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and prioritized by school reopening dates.

For teachers who may contract the coronavirus or may need to quarantine, Lee said the state is following federal guidelines regarding teacher pay and operations. However, while the state can provide safety equipment for teachers, it cannot guarantee they may not contract the coronavirus.

“We also don’t know where cases come from; specifically that’s difficult to track, but we’re doing everything we can to create a safe environment, and our expectation is that those teachers will be returning,” Lee said.

‘A nationwide experiment’

Lee said across the country, school districts are preparing for the school year without knowing fully what it will look like.

“From the beginning of March, we’ve not known what was coming, and we have made decisions based on data on information on what’s actually happening on the ground, and that’s how we’ll make decisions going forward,” Lee said. “Nationally, we’ll watch. There’s going to be a nationwide experiment in this, but it’s a nationwide commitment to kids. That’s why most states and most school districts are doing this.”

Piercey said should an outbreak be discovered after students return, closures could occur at the closest level to the infections. Should a class of students be affected, there may not be a need to close an entire school, but rather just the classroom, she said. She said it would likely be rare for an entire district to close due to outbreaks.

Students who test positive for the virus during the school year will need not need to test again to confirm a negative case after isolating for 10 days if they are asymptomatic, or quarantining for 14 days if they come in contact with someone with the virus, Piercey said.

When asked if he would consider closing schools again should the case numbers rise too high, Lee said the state will monitor the data that comes in the future, but the state is pushing forward with reopening plans as the benefits for students outweigh the risks.

“We’ll follow the data, and we’ll make decisions just like we’ve done in this entire pandemic,” Lee said.
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.


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