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Students in their masks greeted by a teacher at Nolensville Elementary School in 2020

A group representing pulmonary and critical care physicians who practice at Williamson Medical Center has sent a letter to members of the Williamson County Board of Education regarding Williamson County Schools’ guidelines on masks for the upcoming school year.

As of last week, the district has said face coverings will be encouraged but not required for students, staff and visitors. Its health and wellness guidelines were released to parents, teachers and others through the InFocus newsletter. Gary Anderson, WCS executive director of Health and Safety, said the district will continue to monitor the local situation in light of the additional national guidance for schools from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released July 27.

“Last year, we were able to keep students in the buildings largely because we addressed the situation at the classroom level,” Anderson said through InFocus. “We will continue to look at local metrics such as community vaccination rates and community transmission as well as cases in our school buildings to see if we need to make adjustments to our protocols.”

In the July 31 letter to board members, as well as WCS Superintendent Jason Golden, Drs. Tufik Assad, Laura Hunt, Aaron Milstone and Devin Sherman stated those adjustments are needed now. 

“We strongly request that WCS reassesses its current COVID-19 mitigation policies,” the letter reads, “and quickly enact recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, including mandatory masking while indoors.”

The first day of school for the 2021-22 school year is a half day Friday.

The letter went on to read that over the past three weeks, Williamson County has “gone from basically no active disease in the community to now having 20 patients admitted to Williamson Medical Center with that number ever increasing. …

“As critical care physicians that have fought this pandemic tooth and nail on the frontlines in Williamson County for the past 18 months, let us offer our stance: there can be no equivocation on the right decision given the current state of things in our county. The recommendations given by experts are clear, apply to us and we simply must follow them to adequately protect our children.”

Efforts to reach Golden and Nancy Garrett, chairperson for the WCS school board, were unsuccessful.

Not surprisingly, the issue of mask mandates at schools has been a polarizing one. The advocacy group Recall Williamson filed a lawsuit against WCS and Golden late last summer, arguing the district had no right to require masks be worn by students. The case was dismissed by Williamson County Chancery Court Judge Michael Binkley in April, ending the lawsuit.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, a Williamson County parent, Jennifer Ker, started a petition last week to ask WCS board members and leadership to require masks be worn by students and staff in all district schools. Her petition had more than 1,650 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

And over the weekend, the grassroots nonprofit Williamson Strong shared the doctors’ letter in a Facebook post, effectively stirring a hornet’s nest of comments on both sides of the issue. The post had close to 250 comments as of Monday afternoon.

Franklin Special School District has a similar statement as WCS on face coverings for the upcoming school year, saying they are optional, but FSSD board members did not receive the letter.

See below for the full letter. 

July 31st, 2021

 Dear members of Williamson County School Board:

 We represent the Pulmonary and Critical Care Physicians in Williamson County, in practice at Williamson Medical Center. We are also parents to students in Williamson County, and in both capacities, we strongly request that WCS reassesses its current COVID-19 mitigation policies, and quickly enact recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, including mandatory masking while indoors.

After a very difficult year, we were all hopeful earlier this summer that we had gained some control of the Pandemic, and that life could return to some sense of normalcy. Unfortunately, we have had this dream shattered over the last 3 weeks, as we have gone from basically no active disease in the community to now having 20 patients admitted to Williamson Medical Center with that number ever increasing. If we use Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana as our crystal ball, our near-term future is bleak. Most distressing is the substantially increased number of children that are infected with the Delta strain and that are developing critical illness. The Delta strain, as you may know, is more contagious and aggressive, particularly for these unvaccinated populations.

We recognize this has been a turbulent year, and that making decisions for the school system during this rapidly changing landscape is challenging at best. However, we truly believe that there can be no greater charge for the leaders of WCS than ensuring the safety of our students and children. What happens if one of our students develops severe illness or worse, and there were options available to prevent this outcome that we did not take? Unlike last year, when we were blindly preparing for a school year in the setting of an expanding Pandemic without good information, we now have clear data collected over the past year: In-person school is safe when mask mandates are applied and enforced and coupled with other straightforward mitigation strategies such as distancing and hand hygiene. I am told that there are community medical consultants that are helping draft the WCS policies. As critical care physicians that have fought this pandemic tooth and nail on the frontlines in Williamson County for the past 18 months, let us offer our stance: there can be no equivocation on the right decision given the current state of things in our county. The recommendations given by experts are clear, apply to us and we simply must follow them to adequately protect our children. 

I appreciate your consideration of these vitally important issues,

Tufik Assad, MD

Laura Hunt, MD

Aaron Milstone, MD

Devin Sherman, MD