The Knox County School System has become a nexus in the debates regarding the best path forward during the pandemic. While about a third of all school children learned virtually last year, very few started this year in the same manner. Parents had to make the decision last spring as to the form their children’s school would take this year. Cases were dropping and vaccinations were being distributed rapidly. The school board said they would follow CDC and State Board of Health advice regarding safe re-entry to schools.
As the school year approached, cases began to rise. Overall vaccinations stalled and, even though approved for everyone age twelve and over, few parents were vaccinating their children (22% of 12-15-year-olds are fully vaccinated in the state, 16-20-year-olds are at 29.3%). Increasing reports of child hospitalizations sprinkled the news. The much more contagious and, perhaps, more dangerous Delta variant became the dominant strain spreading in Tennessee and the hospitals began to fill.
The Knox County School Board, in a reversal of their statements in the spring, said they would not follow the CDC plan, which calls for universal masking, among other things. They also said the school system would leave contact tracing to the Knox County Health Department, would not be informing parents of contacts, and would they would not have a dashboard like last year to report levels of cases. They voted to not give power to Superintendent Thomas to make changes if the situation warranted changes, but rather retained that power for themselves.
The Republican Caucus of the the state legislature unanimously requested a special session in order to codify that no local school systems could require masks. Instead, Governor Lee issued an executive order saying any mask mandate would be required to have an “opt out” provision for parents. He also removed the power of any school system in the state to move a class, grade-level or school to virtual instruction, regardless of the any situation they might encounter. He reversed this policy at the end of last week.
The school year began with Shelby County Schools (Memphis) and Davidson County Schools (Nashville) enforcing a mask mandate. Hamilton County Schools (Chattanooga) began with a mask mandate with an opt-out option. Knox County was the only one of the four metropolitan counties with no mask mandate.
After the first two weeks of school, Superintendent Thomas agreed to post a dashboard, though it was not as detailed as last year, only showing the number of active cases of COVID-19 across the system, broken down by teachers and students. The first day of reporting was last Monday, when 219 students were reported to have active cases. As active cases topped out last year around 275, the number seemed a high starting point.
By Wednesday, the number reported was 534 active cases among students and 67 among staff. Mr. Thomas issued a somewhat confusing and contradictory statement which seemed to imply the number jumped so rapidly because the Knox County Health Department was now working with the school system.
The leaps in numbers continued, ending Friday with the report of 807 students with active cases of COVID-19, in addition to 98 staff members. From Monday to Friday, the reported number increased 413%. Friday’s number was over 300% higher than last year’s peak. 8,400 students, or over 14% were absent on Thursday and I understand the number was higher on Friday.
I spoke to one couple whose nine-year-old son tested positive and their situation illustrates the complications which partially result from the hands-off approach taken by the school board. Their child was exposed to an unmasked child at school and they were not told because at that point the teacher and the principal were forbidden to give out any information, including whether any child had tested positive (even without names) and most specifically whether a child in any particular class had tested positive.
They were directed speak to the Knox County Health Department for any information. They question why a simple outbreak of lice in a classroom results in every parent being informed, but a potentially deadly disease during a pandemic is treated differently. The father made the point that last year this kind of information was freely shared about COVID and it appears to have changed for no discernable reason.
After the exposure and before they knew anything was amiss, their child went to a birthday party (outside), kids activities at church (everyone required to mask), and scouts (masks required). They fear he could have exposed as many as 70 different children through those contacts. The principal was later allowed to give limited information and met electronically with the parents in that classroom. Twelve children of the twenty-one in that classroom were out sick by that time. The father had to cancel a work trip and the child missed two weeks of school.
Interestingly, the child only missed two weeks of school because his parents did the right thing. No one is asking for proof of positive or negative tests in the school system. Parents are not being provided guidance for how long their positive child, or their child who has been exposed, should remain at home. Children are, no doubt, returning to school before they should.
The parents are pleading for children to wear masks, for anyone eligible to get vaccinated, and for the resumption of contact tracing in the schools. They are also advocating for PCR testing because their son test negative twice on rapid tests. Many parents would have accepted the first test and sent the child back to school. They have submitted a request to the Board of Education and the superintendent
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of parents are growing frustrated. With no contact tracing in the schools, some parents began Facebook groups to share if their children were sick. At least one woman held a sign in front of her child’s school to let others know. One community group planned a “Sick Out” for today advocating for parents to keep their children home to press the Knox County Board of Education to pass a mandatory masking policy, provide an expanded COVID-19 dashboard, and have transparent contact tracing in place, among other things.
A Facebook group called Stop the Spread, Knoxville! has attracted 1,100 members and the group has planned a march and rally at the Andrew Johnson Building for this Wednesday. It is planned to coincide with the specially called meeting of the Board of Education which will be held there. The meeting was called to address many of the above issues, with proposals on the table for mandatory masking with an opt out provision among many others involving contact tracing, the system dashboard and more.
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