State officials are encouraging Tennessee’s school districts to reopen with in-person classes — including calling for quarantine periods for those with coronavirus symptoms, health and safety supplies for teachers, and millions in grant money to help fund technology.
“Make no mistake, extended time away from the classroom is harmful for children,” Gov. Bill Lee said at a Tuesday news conference. “We fully support reopening our schools with in-person learning as the best option. Planned delays should be reserved for the most extreme situations.”
Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn did not mandate when schools resume in-person classes but said it was their expectation that all districts return students to campus.
“When we think about the new school year, the department’s top priority will continue to be ensuring safe and healthy schools for children and staff and providing high-quality education for all children,” Schwinn said at the news conference.
Health protocols that districts are expected to follow
The state education and health departments together created protocols that all districts are expected to follow for how to respond to confirmed COVID-19 cases and when to close schools, though some school districts across the state were already working with local public health officials to establish criteria specific to their own communities.
Some districts have already started classes, while others are set to start back next week — including Metro Nashville Public Schools. Nashville students will start the year remotely.
Tennessee Public Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said it should be rare for an entire district to close down again.
“I think we’ve all clearly stated today that in-classroom learning is the best and should be a starting point and then you should work your way backwards from that,” Piercey said. “We’ve assisted the Department of Education with a very detailed plan of how to address cases when they happen. … We don’t want to put anyone at risk. But we also know that if an outbreak is contained to a classroom, it’s probably not needed to close the whole building.”
Under the plan unveiled Tuesday:
- There will be a 10-day sick window for anyone testing positive for COVID-19. They must isolate at home for 10 days from the onset of their symptoms or 10 days from the date of a test.
- There will be a 14-day quarantine period. Anyone who has been within 6 feet for 10 minutes or more of someone who has COVID-19 must quarantine themselves at home from the last time they were with that person.
- The state is providing personal protective equipment, including masks, for any “school stakeholder” who wants or needs one, thermometers for every school and face shields for every staff member.
- The state says it will spend $77 million to provide a classroom kit for up to 80,000 teachers of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
- There will be an $11 million grant program to bolster remote learning programming.
- The state says a $50 million grant initiative to support school districts with technology purchases is now available.
- In addition to outlining the school reopening procedures, the governor announced a plan to allow school sports to return.
Push to reopen as concerns mount among teachers
Lee and Schwinn have continued to push for schools to reopen in-person this fall despite ongoing spikes of coronavirus cases across the state and pleas from some educators for instruction to remain online until the spread of the virus has been halted.
Just this week, educators in Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis gathered for mock funeral processions, “die-ins” and other protests calling for Lee to issue a statewide mask mandate as well as allocate more funding for health and safety measures and technology access in the state’s schools.
On Monday, after meeting with White House adviser Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the top coronavirus officials in the nation, Lee said he believes reopening schools in-person is best for children.
Lee and Schwinn have argued that closing schools poses risks to vulnerable children who are trapped in homes where there is the possibility for abuse or neglect, children who don’t have access to nutritious meals, and even to the mental and emotional health of children.
Schwinn has argued many families depend on schools for not only academics but also support services and even just a safe place for their children to go during the day while parents have to go to work.
Schwinn and Piercey emphasized the decrease in reported child abuse cases and the rise in student hunger as some of the consequences the state has seen from students being out of school for extended periods of time.
Though there isn’t a clear consensus among public health or medical experts on how significant of a role children play in the spread of COVID-19, recent evidence shows that older children and teens are just as likely to spread the virus as adults.
Most children under the age of 18 who contract COVID-19 experience mild symptoms and fully recover within one to two weeks, according to medical experts, but at least four children under 18 have died in Tennessee after contracting the virus.
People under the age of 20 make up 16%, or 15,351, of Tennessee’s cases, according to Tennessee Department of Health data as of Monday.
The rise in cases has led multiple school districts to push back the start of their school years, including Shelby, Wilson and Knox counties.
But on Tuesday, Lee urged school districts to open on time, saying any planned delays should be reserved for more “extreme situations.”
Coronavirus cases already showing up in schools
But the worry is that as children return to school and spread the virus among their peers, teachers and to their families, the children might fare OK, but the adults who surround them and care for them might not.
In East Tennessee, just days after Alcoa City Schools began welcoming students back to class last week, an individual at Alcoa Middle School tested positive for the virus.
Families were notified Friday, and though it’s unclear how many students or staff were exposed to the individual, students who did have contact will have to quarantine at home.
If notified, the student will need to quarantine for 14 days unless a doctor’s note or negative test shows it’s possible to return sooner. Students are expected to continue working digitally but are not permitted to attend school or any school activities.
And on Tuesday, Oak Ridge schools said a staff member at a middle school tested positive for COVID-19. Oak Ridge schools start back Wednesday.
Unlike the state’s approach to publicly release the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths that occur in long-term care facilities, Piercey said similar information would not be published for Tennessee schools.
She said such information would more likely come from local school districts.
Asked whether thousands of students and teachers contracting COVID-19 could force the state to alter course, Lee said Tennessee would maintain its current approach with decisions made based on data.
“There’s going to be a nationwide experiment in this,” he said. “But it’s a nationwide commitment to kids.”
Criticism of plan quick to emerge
Tennessee Democrats slammed Lee, arguing his plan does not follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Democrats highlighted portions of the CDC guidelines that say schools should reopen only if transmission rates in a community are under control, according to the party’s statement.
“The lives of children, parents, teachers, support staff, and administrators are nothing to experiment with,” the party said in a statement.
Hundreds of Tennessee doctors who have been calling for schools not to reopen in-person also spoke out against the plan Tuesday.
“We have clear guidelines that determine Tennessee is experiencing an extreme outbreak and we have not got this under control to the point where we can safely open schools,” said Dr. Stephen Heyman, a Tennessee critical care physician, speaking on behalf of ProtectMyCare, a coalition of doctors who have been outspoken throughout the coronavirus pandemic. “We cannot open schools until we have this pandemic controlled.”
Reach Joel Ebert at [email protected] or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29.
Meghan Mangrum covers education in Nashville for the USA TODAY Network – Tennessee. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.