The Tennessee Education Association asked Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday to implement a statewide mask mandate and take other safety measures after their research showed teachers are contracting COVID-19 at consistently higher rates than the communities they serve.

The TEA, which represents teachers across the state, also blasted the Tennessee Department of Education for its COVID-19 dashboard that is supposed to report the case numbers among students and teachers.

In an open letter, the TEA asked Lee to mandate masks, publish firm state guidance for an infection threshold when schools would revert to in-person learning and provide substantial emergency funding for schools’ personal protective equipment and HVAC upgrades to stop the spread of the virus.

Beth Brown, president, Tennessee Education Association (Photo: TEA)
Beth Brown, president, Tennessee Education Association (Photo: TEA)

TEA data showed that the return to in-person learning increases infection risk and teachers will contract COVID-19 at a rate substantially higher than their communities.

The TEA especially took aim at the education department’s COVID-19 dashboard. Research by the TEA showed cases are being under-reported.

“It is clear there are significant errors in the (state education department) dashboard; gross underreporting is apparent when the student infection numbers are cross-referenced with concurrent Department of Health cases for school-age children,” the TEA letter stated. “The SDE should require accurate (local district) reporting of student/staff COVID cases or stop publishing flawed datasets.

“It was demonstrably wrong SDE reporting that led TEA to review six school systems who have local COVID dashboards and publish timely and accurate infection data for students and staff.”

Using data from the Department of Health showing the number of children between the ages of 5 and 18 who have tested positive, and then applying a formula that averages the percentage of children attending school, the TEA research found the state education department was under-reporting positive cases by about half. The dashboard showed 952 student cases, while the TEA research concludes there were 1,974 for the week ending Nov. 14.

Similarly the TEA research claims positive cases among school staff are also being under-reported.