Commentary: Our children will bear the brunt of state’s mishandling of COVID-19 crisis

August 9, 2021 5:01 am
See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing: children will bear the brunt of the state's mishandling of the COVID crisis. (Photo illustration: John Partipilo)

(Photo illustration: John Partipilo)

As a teacher, I can pinpoint distinct feelings associated with each part of the year.  The obvious excitement of the end of the school year in late spring with students wrapping up exams and desks being pushed to the perimeter of the room for the annual waxing of the floor over the summer.  The tired, but satisfied feeling of making it to Thanksgiving knowing that Winter Break is only a few weeks away.  And, of course, there’s the August anticipation – a nervous energy of starting the school year and building relationships with new students from scratch while not knowing how they will respond to your personality.  

The cyclical nature of education in a normal year can be an interesting duality of comfort and unpredictability.  Education in the time of COVID, however, is downright volatile – thanks in part to Gov. Bill Lee seemingly wanting to change the state color from Volunteer Orange to Super Spreader Red.  

Gabe Hart (Photo: Submitted)
Gabe Hart (Photo: Submitted)

A year ago, my school system delayed its start date because of spiking hospital numbers due to the spread of COVID-19 in Madison County.  We began the year fully virtual, and gradually brought students back to school as the hospital numbers waned.  When students were back in the schools, the district mandated masks to be worn in classrooms and social distancing was paramount.  

Jump ahead twelve months and our hospital numbers are spiking again, but this time school is fully in session without any safeguards in place to stop the spread of a variant of COVID that seems to be twice as contagious and far more hazardous to children.  Much like a pandemic affected school year, Lee’s response to this second wave of COVID has been predictably chaotic.

In April, the state Board of Education unanimously voted to eliminate the option of virtual learning for the 2021-2022 school year in Tennessee unless students were specifically enrolled in a virtual school.  

I am fully aware of the advantage of having students physically present in the learning environment.  It was a challenge to educate both virtual and in-person learners simultaneously.  Nearly everyone would agree that students learn best when they are at school and engaged in learning.   However, I’m also a proponent for the safety of my students and my community.  Taking away an option for virtual learning when the pandemic was still clearly impacting people’s lives was ignorant at best and reckless at worst.  

With the virtual option off the table, the next line of defense for students in schools would be a mask mandate.  Logically and proactively, the state should have  encouraged and incentivized local districts to mandate masks for students.  Instead, Lee said that masks were “a district decision” and supports the idea that most districts will not enact a mandate.  

Not be outdone by Lee’s opposition to school district mask mandates and virtual schooling, House Speaker Cameron Sexton threatened to resurrect the voucher program and ask Lee for special legislation to “allow those parents in those school districts to take their money through school choice and go wherever they deem they need to go.”  

When the Speaker of the House of the state of Tennessee uses a pandemic to push a political agenda without one iota of concern about the safety of students, it shows how low this administration will stoop to cling to a party line.  

While it can be tempting (and maddening) to constantly cycle through the words of Lee and his administration and rail against their idiocy, it is vital to cut the noise with what medical professionals are saying about this variant of COVID.

When the Speaker of the House of the state of Tennessee uses a pandemic to push a political agenda without one iota of concern about the safety of students, it shows how low this administration will stoop to cling to a party line.

The Delta variant is infecting children at a much more rapid rate.  The effects of this variant seem to be more damaging to children.  

Dr. Nick Hysmith is the Medical Director of Infection Prevention at LeBonheur in Memphis.  With numbers escalating in Shelby County, he is seeing the damage done to children from this virus.  

There is something about this Delta variant that I don’t think we completely understand yet, but we are seeing more of the acute symptoms (in children) than we are seeing in adults,” Hysmith said.  “The sickness, the illness we are seeing, is considerably more severe over the last couple of weeks than we’ve seen previously.”

Even State Health commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey, stated that all of Tennessee’s children’s hospitals will be full by the end of the week.  

In late May, Lee joined Sean Hannity on Fox News and made the following statement that has aged in the worst way possible: 

“The health crisis is over. The emergency is over. We have fully opened up, and we’re moving our state forward. The left likes to say follow the science until they don’t. You can’t say follow the science and keep kids out of school. You can’t say follow the science and wear a mask after you’re vaccinated. You certainly can’t put COVID patients back into the nursing home if you follow the science.”

I’m not a science teacher, Governor, but I can safely say that our state is on fire right now in the worst way possible, and you’ve locked up all the water.   

As an educator, I have never believed the Republican-dense capitol in Nashville has ever supported education.  From banning Critical Race Theory to providing low funding for schools, legislation has never been about taking care of public education in Tennessee.  I’ve never counted on them for much support, but this is a matter of public health.

Science says vaccines work, yet the state’s top vaccine official was fired for marketing vaccines to high school aged children.  Science says masks work, yet a voucher program is threatened to be enacted for mask mandated districts.  

Our students are vulnerable.  Our rates of infection are alarming.  This is a crisis.  Republican lawmakers and our Governor are watching it all metaphorically burn and refusing to do anything about it.  

Our state’s handling of COVID has been embarrassing.  Now, it is turning deadly, and our children will bear the brunt of it unless something changes.   


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Gabe Hart
Gabe Hart

Gabe Hart is chief communications officer for Haywood County Schools and a former teacher of English and Literature. He writes a monthly op-ed column for The Jackson Sun as well as feature stories for the quarterly journal, "Our Jackson Home." He also serves on the education committee for the newly formed Jackson Equity Project which seeks to advocate for equity and justice for marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed people living in Jackson. Beyond writing and teaching, Gabe enjoys spending time with his fourteen year old daughter, exercising, and listening to music (specifically The National and Jason Isbell.)