Proms and Circumstance
As active COVID-19 cases hit a new peak in Knox County, high school students are gathering for graduations and dances.
by Hancen A. Sale • June 12, 2020
students at Powell High School's graduation on Monday, June 8.
With active cases of COVID-19 in Knox County reaching their highest level yet yesterday, Knox County Schools have begun hosting graduation ceremonies for 18 high schools.
One mass-transmission event can reverberate through an entire community.
Parents from at least two Knox County high schools also plan to hold unofficial proms, defying guidance set forth by the Knox County Health Department, which recommends all large gatherings be limited to 50 people or fewer.
Active COVID-19 cases in Knox County hit 120 yesterday according to the county Health Department, the most since the pandemic began.
At the commencement ceremonies, which were delayed from last month, each graduate can bring up to four guests and all attendees are expected to follow precautionary guidelines.
“Our expectations for attending graduation were shared with families, including physical distancing, wearing a mask or face covering and encouraging individuals to stay home if sick,” said Carly Harrington, director of public affairs for Knox County Schools.
At the graduation for Powell High School seniors on Monday night, the vast majority of students and family members were not wearing masks. Nor were the public officials on stage, including school Superintendent Bob Thomas and County Mayor Glenn Jacobs.
The Liability Dance
As for the proms, according to information posted by organizers, up to 300 students and their dates will be permitted to attend, but how many students will actually show up remains unclear. Both events will be held at The Venue at Lenoir City on back-to-back nights on June 12 and 13.
Since the two events are sponsored exclusively by parents, no school administrators, teachers, or security from Knox County Schools will be present.
One event organized for Central High School students, labeled as “the Prom that even a World-Wide Pandemic couldn’t stop” on social media, was promoted to Central High School students by Principal Andrew Brown in a since-deleted tweet on May 26. Harrington confirmed Brown reposted an image with information about the parent-sponsored event but reiterated that it is not sponsored by the school.
Still, promotional materials for the event posted to social media use the school’s official logo and Harrington confirmed that ticket sales were facilitated at Central High School while the campus was officially closed. Both happened with Brown's knowledge, per the tweet from his personal Twitter account. In addition, the event website gives special thanks to CHS football coach Nick Craney for “contributing in one way or another.”
A parent organizer of the Central prom, who did not want to be quoted by name, said the school did not “endorse” or advise against holding the unofficial prom. According to the parent, the venue will be taking students’ temperatures upon arrival and following all the recommended state guidelines. When asked about the possible criticism and risk involved with hosting the prom, the parent said they did not believe the event posed any extraordinary risk to students or the community.
Brown did not respond to an email requesting a comment.
Last week, Hardin Valley Academy principal Rob Speas confirmed a similar unofficial prom event was being organized by parents in the Hardin Valley community.
Despite an event page on Facebook that uses the school’s official logo, Speas indicated the school was not connected to the community organized prom and that he recommended HVA staff members not attend. In response to a question about Knox County Health Department guidance pertaining to mass gatherings, Speas added “the event [will be] held in Loudon County so it falls under the state guidelines rather than Knox County.”
Although the venue is located in Lenoir City, meaning the events technically comply with state guidelines set by Gov. Bill Lee, the unofficial proms still constitute large gatherings among individuals from Knox County. Holding the event in a different county does not lower the potential risk involved.
“The virus doesn’t respect political borders,” said Yale University professor and physician Nicholas Christakis, “especially such short-range ones.”
“During an epidemic of a deadly contagious disease, [holding large gatherings] is not a wise course of action,” Christakis said, referring to the idea of proceeding with prom while COVID-19 is still looming. Christakis is the director of the Yale Institute for Network Science’s Human Nature Lab, which is currently working to develop a new model to track COVID-19 using social networks and population flows.
Historically speaking, the adverse role large gatherings play in the emergence and transmission of infectious diseases is well-documented, and emerging research suggests even one large gathering can have a reverberating, community-wide impact.
Even if an event facilitates transmission primarily among a relatively low-risk population — i.e. young people — they could transmit the disease to more vulnerable or high-risk individuals.
When asked whether Knox County Schools supports the community organized events geared towards students in light of the risks involved, Harrington said, “the district holds a neutral position to such events.”
“We are aware that parents of seniors have made plans to host a non-school sponsored prom,” she said. “The decision to attend these events is a personal one that families must make.”
Knox County school board Member Kristi Kristy also confirmed that Knox County Schools Central Office communicated with administrators internally about the unofficial events, albeit in a more pointed fashion. Kristy provided an email sent by South Doyle High School principal Tim Berry to SDHS staff saying, “Knox County will take a firm stance that we not participate or lead in these types of events sponsored by parents or community.”
The proms happening the same week as the graduation ceremonies have the potential to increase effective contact and thereby the likelihood of more transmission in the broader Knoxville community.
“It is heartbreaking the school year ended the way it did, and I understand why parents and communities want to host special events for our seniors,” Kristy said.
But she nonetheless supports the decision to cancel school-sponsored proms in light of the risk involved.
Over the past two weeks, Knox County Health Department data shows at least 30 new cases among the 11-20 age group.
At least one of those new cases was a Farragut High School football player. Farragut principal John Bartlett sent an email on June 1, informing parents there had been a confirmed “case of COVID-19 that may have exposure implications for the Farragut football team.” It was later revealed that 12 people associated with the Farragut High School football team are on a 14-day quarantine after coming into contact with the player.
However, the case connected to the football team appears to be only one of many. Numerous Knox County Schools administrators, employees and parents also corroborated information surrounding more than one gathering involving a large number of Farragut High School students. Across separate events, several individuals who attended have now tested positive for COVID-19 and others are quarantined after being exposed to an infected individual.
Harrington said the school system is notified if students were exposed through a school activity or there’s a risk they could be. In the case of the Farragut football player, she said, “A message was immediately communicated to families who may have potentially been exposed.”
Farragut High School’s graduation ceremony is scheduled for June 19.
Christakis says transmission risk rises rapidly by group size and bigger groups are even more prone to an outbreak.
“With such a large number of possible connections, [and] as groups get larger, even a very small risk of transmission (e.g., 5 minutes being very near someone who is wearing a mask, outside) means that a large number of cases could result,” Christakis notes.
The risk associated with large gatherings is why Knox County Schools canceled all school-sponsored events in the first place. An initial proposal to delay graduation until late July and to not allow guests met fierce community resistance. So school officials agreed to hold them earlier and allow limited guests.
The district is in the process of collecting community input and consulting with the Health Department about its plans to reopen next school year. The proms and graduations being held now could impact how and if students return to the classroom in the fall.
Hancen A. Sale is a freelance journalist and research assistant at the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter @hancen4sale.