Ready or Not

classroom with empty desks

Ready or Not

Despite public health recommendations and the concerns of some parents, Knox County Schools prepares for an unmasked reopening.

by jesse fox mayshark • August 5, 2021

classroom with empty desks

(Image by wokandapix from pixabay)

Brian and Olga Carniello were looking forward to sending their two children to Bluegrass Elementary School this fall, after keeping them at home for virtual schooling last year. Their youngest spent his kindergarten year learning online.

The CDC and the Tennessee chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics are recommending universal masking in schools.

They were heartened by declining COVID-19 case counts and the widespread availability of effective vaccines.

“By May, things seemed to be getting better,” Brian Carniello said in an interview on Tuesday. “And we didn’t think there was going to be this problem. I had never heard of the delta variant.”

Now things look different. Cases have been rising again nationwide, along with hospitalizations and deaths, particularly in places like Knox County where more than half the population remains unvaccinated.

And the Carniellos are not happy with the response from Knox County Schools.

“I went this afternoon on the website, thinking well, we’re getting closer to school beginning, maybe they’ve updated some information,” Olga Carniello said. “And the last update pretty much says, ‘No mask requirement, we’re not going to be screening, we’re not going to be contact tracing, and pretty much everybody (is) welcome in school.’”

When Knox County Schools open with a half-day for students on Monday, all of the health protocols maintained throughout last year will be gone. The school system will not require face masks, distancing, contact tracing, or quarantines for students or teachers exposed to infected people, and it will no longer report numbers of cases among students or staff.

Classrooms will be more crowded, too, with most students who took virtual classes last year returning for in-person instruction. Only 719 students signed up for the county’s new virtual schools, compared with 13,064 who enrolled in virtual classes in the spring semester.

Most students will be unvaccinated — COVID-19 vaccines have yet to be approved for children younger than 12, and just 35 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds in the county are currently vaccinated, and 45 percent of 16- to 20-year-olds. 

COVID-19 cases among young people are rising, although they remain the demographic least likely to experience serious effects from the disease. East Tennessee Children’s Hospital confirmed Tuesday that it had four children with COVID-19 in its intensive care unit, although that number is below what it saw during the height of the winter surge in December and January, when numbers reached seven at a time.

There have been no COVID-19 deaths in Knox County among people under 18, and 30 hospitalizations out of a total case count of 6,653 in that demographic. 

No Mandate

At the Knox County school board’s monthly work session Wednesday night, it was clear that there was little appetite on the board for a return to face masks or other public health modifications. Instead, several board members said it should be up to parents to decide if they want their children to wear masks.

“The staff needs to get school open, parents need to worry about getting their kids back to school,” board Chair Susan Horn said. She added, “I feel like our principals and our teachers are professionals, and they will do a great job encouraging students to wear masks if (the students) feel like they want to.”

The board voted in May to end the mask requirement that it had instituted last August, at the start of the 2020-21 school year. But board members Daniel Watson and Jennifer Owen noted that the board also voted in April to approve a school reopening plan proposed by Superintendent Bob Thomas, which had said the school system would follow recommendations from the state Department of Health.

“I’m worried about the credibility of this body, and I think that’s important,” Owen said. “It’s not about masks. It’s not about anything except the fact that what we voted for is not what we have.”

State Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey recommended Monday that school systems consult national guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Based on the increased transmissibility of the delta variant of COVID-19, the CDC is currently recommending “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”

The Knox County Health Department also reinforced the CDC guidelines in a statement yesterday, saying it, “continues to recommend that guidance from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics be followed.” The Tennessee chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its own press release yesterday calling for universal masking in schools and urging all eligible people to get vaccinated.

“We support the rights of parents to make decisions for their children, but we also support the rights of children and school staff not to be harmed by decisions that go against science and current public health needs,” the release said. “It is false to believe that children don’t get COVID. They do. As Pediatricians, we have cared for them. Children can also spread COVID to vulnerable people in their homes and communities.”

Metro Nashville School Director Adrienne Battle recommended Wednesday that the district’s school board adopt a new mask mandate for the coming school year, joining Hancock County and Shelby County schools in requiring them.

A Question of Authority

But the Knox County Law Department argued in a memo to board members this week that because Gov. Bill Lee has lifted his emergency COVID orders and the board rescinded its own mask policy, it is unclear if either Thomas or the board has the authority to enact a new mask mandate.

“With no state statute or rule or regulation specifically authorizing local boards of education to mandate COVID-19 protocols, including but not limited to mask/face covering mandates, this Knox County Board of Education should proceed with caution,” the memo said.

Thomas, for his part, said that even if he were given the authority to reinstate a mask requirement, he is not inclined to do so. He noted that both Lee and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs have argued against new mandates.

“If you want to give me the authority as far as face masks, then I’m going to go back to what the governor has recommended,” Thomas said. “It’s recommended, but it’s not mandated.”

Board Vice Chair Virgina Babb, who supported keeping the mask requirement last year even as opposition to it rose from some parents across the county, said Wednesday that she didn’t think a new mandate was the answer.

“I would have a hard time being behind a mandate,” she said. “I do want our language from Knox County Schools to be (that) we highly recommend it, we highly support anyone that wants to wear one to wear one.”

She added, “While I’m at it, I wish people would get their damn vaccine. Because, honestly, that’s why our community is in so much trouble right now. That's what eats me up at night is the fact that if people back in May had gone and gotten their vaccination, we wouldn't be having the conversation right now.”

The latter comment drew a raucous mixture of cheers and boos from the audience of parents and students, reflecting a deep divide in the county on both the perils of the pandemic and the efficacy of the vaccines.

That split was also evident during about 45 minutes of public forum at the end of the meeting, with forceful arguments both for and against a mask requirement and other public health measures.

The Carniellos, meanwhile, say they aren’t going to wait to see the outcome of the school system’s wide-open approach. They are making plans to teach their children, who are entering first and third grades, at home. If a vaccine is approved for children under 12, they might reconsider later in the school year. But for now, they are consulting homeschool resources. 

“We can’t send our kids to school, not in person, because they’re not giving us a choice,” Brian Carniello said. “We can’t send them there safely.”