kids school bus

“Insane and irresponsible.” That’s what a coalition of more than 2,000 Tennessee medical professionals is calling some school districts’ plans to resume in-person classes just weeks from now. 

Since they first lobbied for a mandated shelter-in-place, ProtectMyCare has been urging Gov. Bill Lee to make decisions based on science, not politics. Now they’re echoing what many educators across the state — and nation — are saying.

“First get the crisis under control before putting teachers and families at risk,” says Amy Gordon Bono, an internal medicine doctor in Nashville with a masters in public health. Bono was one of three panelists at a virtual press conference held this week.

The coalition wants a “unified battle plan” from the state — instead of leaving Tennessee’s 95 counties to each come up with their own — that includes a state mask mandate, expanded contact tracing and school reopening proposals drafted by public officials and educators. Williamson County plans to open with a hybrid model based on COVID transmission rates in the area.

Most importantly, says Bono, students and teachers should not return to buildings before transmission rates drop to 10 new cases per 100,000 people per day, for at least two consecutive weeks. On July 16, Tennessee counted 36.5 new cases per 100,000 people.

“Rushing to reopen [the state] led to rising transmission rates, rising daily case counts and rising hospitalizations,” says Bono. “Rushing to reopen schools will have similar consequences, and lead to suffering and possible death. 

Rutherford County family practice physician Nick Coté points out the start of school is already a time when “viral infection rates for normal respiratory illnesses significantly start to increase.”

Coté has two daughters in public school (one is a rising senior, the other a teacher) and a father-in-law in an ICU with COVID-19. He says by not implementing stringent containment measures, local, state and federal leaders are exacerbating the spread of a disease so new that the “long-term health consequences we don't even fully understand yet.” 

Adds Coté: “The long-term recovery of these folks that have had COVID-19 is unlike anything I've ever seen. Most importantly, this abdication of our leaders is resulting in avoidable death. Let me say that again: Avoidable death.”

Brian Johnson is a middle school teacher in Sumner County, which is offering a hybrid plan when school starts on Aug. 3. Johnson was the sole educator on the panel. He fears officials bringing kids back to school will see what governors around the country who eased containment measures too soon saw: surges in COVID-19 cases.

Johnson also calls out Tennessee schools boards, including Sumner County’s, for holding virtual discussions about reopening schools. “If you're not willing to meet in person,” he asks, “why would you decide to put students and faculty members back in a physical school setting?”

Johnson says educators like himself are shocked and hurt by what he calls “flippancy” at the federal level and the state level. In pushing to reopen schools, leaders have said only a small percentage of students and teachers would have problems and health issues.

“When you do the math,” Johnson says, “even that small percentage is thousands of children.”

Below is a partial list of questions educators say they want answered to before returning to school buildings. Some districts have offered partial answers, or answers to some of the questions.

  • Daily temperature checks with a “no-touch thermometer” are recommended as students and teachers walk in the door. Will the district provide all classrooms with no-touch thermometers? 

  • Many schools don’t have a full-time nurse on staff. Will they all have one when reopening?

  • If a teacher or student tests positive for COVID, will the entire class have to quarantine for 14 days? What about a principal, EE teacher, or any other adult who may come in contact with a person in that classroom? 

  • Will self-quarantines count as sick days? What happens if teachers are exposed 3-4 times, and have used up all their standard and emergency sick days to quarantine? Will they lose pay?

  • What happens if a teacher gets sick and there is no substitute available for their class? This was already an issue pre-COVID, when teachers would divide students from their classroom and combine them with other classes. How does this work with social distancing?

  • Is it fair or legal to ask a substitute to cover in a classroom where one or more people has tested positive for COVID-19?

  • Will all restrooms be cleaned after each use and if so, by whom? Custodial staff are often already bare bones, how many new staff will be hired for the additional cleaning?

  • Since many kids will remain in the classroom all day, who will take over when teachers need to go to the restroom, or take their mandatory 30-min lunch? (Already an issue pre-COVID.)

  • What measures are in place to maintain sanitary practices for serving and eating food in classrooms?

  • Will there be interpreters at each school for non-English language background students to make sure they understand what is going on and how to properly protect themselves?

  • What happens in classrooms that don’t have the ability to space desks six feet apart or windows for ventilation? 

  • Will all staff be given PPE or will they have to provide their own? 

  • Will children be provided with masks if their families cannot afford them? Will they get a new, clean mask each day? If students use reusable masks, who will clean them?

  • Will bus drivers get PPE? Will someone be monitoring bus stops to ensure kids are distancing and wearing proper PPE?

This story first appeared in our partner publication the Nashville Scene.

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