Commentary: As Governor fails to lead, media and parents must track COVID in schools

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

The COVID pandemic is like nothing any of us have experienced. As parents, we are tired, confused and scared. We are being forced to make decisions about our children’s education
that pit a bad choice against a worse choice, and we grieve for our children who are being asked to sacrifice and accept a “new normal.”

But we are the adults, and we accept that we need to make hard decisions for our children sometimes. Unfortunately for us and the families of the 60,000 children in Knox County Schools, we are not being given the information we need to be able to make informed decisions.

Specifically, Gov. Lee’s administration and the Knox County Schools superintendent, Bob Thomas, have decided to withhold information regarding COVID cases in schools. Gov. Lee – showing his lack of understanding and leadership – has flip-flopped multiple times on whether the state will collect or release information about COVID cases in schools across the state.

Locally, Thomas announced that the school district will have a COVID dashboard, but data will not be broken down by individual schools. He vaguely cites HIPAA and FERPA to justify his decision, but neither would preclude the school district from providing school-level data. Without knowledge of how COVID is spreading within our schools, how are parents expected to make decisions about the health and welfare of our children? It is impossible and is putting all parents in a terrible position, which does not benefit the children, the schools or the community.

If Gov. Lee and Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas will not provide information, parents and local media outlets must come together as a community and create our own methods for tracking the spread.

We must demand transparency from Gov. Lee and Superintendent Thomas. If they will not provide information, we must come together as a community – without the support
of our government – and create our own methods for tracking the spread. Specifically, we call on the news directors of WBIR, WATE, WVLT and WUOT and the editors of the Tennessee
Lookout, Knoxville Compass and Knoxville News Sentinel to come together to create a single, crowdsourced database for reporting COVID cases within the schools. Currently, many of these news organizations are creating their own databases and are doing their best to track cases, but this is too big of a job and is too important for any single newsroom to manage.

A shared database that reporters from all news organizations can access will allow for greater participation by the public, quicker and easier verification of submitted information, and greater trust by the public. The more robust dataset will also allow for a greater understanding of how the virus is affecting our schools and will allow our local reporters to spend more of time reporting on the effects of the virus instead of focusing on tracking and verifying individual cases. While we understand this is not how journalism normally works, these are not normal times.

Additionally, we call on parents to share information with local journalists. We can’t count on Mr. Thomas or Gov. Lee to tell us what is happening in our children’s school; we can only count on each other to share information far and wide. If you get notice of a case in your school, share it with one of the amazing reporters in our community or enter the information in one of the online forms many of our local news organizations have created. I know this is a lot to put on parents, but it is what it is. If the government won’t work for us, we must work together to help each other make healthy, informed decisions for each of our families.