Twins Marshall and Charlie Groves prepare for school at Nashville’s Lakeland Design Center. (Photo: John Partipilo)
As a parent of a child with a disability, Hanna Morgan Lewis begins each school year by having doctors fill out comprehensive seizure and medical forms, as required by the Williamson County Public Schools. School officials require her son’s medical issues be planned for in advance in case of emergencies and to avoid liability issues, said Lewis. That is why some school board members’ rejection of a mask mandate was confusing, Lewis said, questioning how they could avoid liability if her son was exposed to COVID-19 while attending school.
“My son was born with a rare genetic disorder that is still undiagnosed, as well as having cerebral palsy, autism, and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome all of which prevent him from being physically able to wear a mask, according to real doctors,” said Lewis.
“How can I continue to trust a district if you vote directly against my son’s safety?” she added.
In April, the Tennessee Board of Education required state school districts to hold classes in person. Parents who wanted to return to remote learning had to enroll in a virtual school, limiting options for families and educators among rising COVID-19 delta variant cases.
Gov. Bill Lee has been a staunch advocate for parental choice and criticized schools with mask mandates, such as Shelby County. While few school districts across the state are requiring masks for children returning to school, state lawmakers are still split over the issue, with some pushing for a special session to take authority from local health boards.
But parents and teachers across Tennessee expressed concern over the state’s refusal to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for returning to school, which called for all students ages 2 and older to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
Teachers are starting with pandemic exhaustion “like no other school year has in recent modern history,” said Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association.
Many educators spent the summer helping children recover from falling behind during virtual learning, and although most teachers understand the need for in-person instruction, state officials need to allow local officials to make the best decisions for their communities, Brown said. And local officials need to commit to federal guidelines for a safe return to school, she said.
Last year, Brown wrote several letters to families of educators who died of COVID-19 complications, and noting the increasing infection rates, Brown said she’s worried she’ll have to do the same for children.
“I understand the pandemic fatigue, but we’re also seeing a variant of this virus that has the potential to do a lot of harm to our most vulnerable students.”
We Are Terrified, Said Parents
In Williamson County, several pediatricians held a press conference Monday to urge school officials to take into consideration data released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which shows that children across the state are testing at a positive rate of 10.9%.
As of Monday, Williamson County had 6,134 child COVID-19 cases, with 355 new cases within the last 14 days, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.
“Failure to listen to the physicians and nurses taking care of these COVID cases and failure to recognize that COVID remains a threat in our schools when both are unmasked and not eligible for the vaccine is a willful act of harm to the children’s right to life,” Dr. Vidya Bansal, a board certified pediatrician, said Monday. “Kids don’t die from wearing masks,” she added.
It feels like we’re offering up elementary students as tribute in the COVID hunger games.
– Jill Black, a Hamilton County parent
In Shelby County, students began classes Monday with masks, with the Shelby County Health Department required masks in all public and private daycares, preschools and K-12 schools.
As a Shelby County parent, the measure brought some relief to Jerri Green, although she still anticipates a dangerous school year.
Shelby County has had 13,643 child COVID-19 cases, one of the highest number of COVID cases among children 5 to 18 years of age. In the last 14 days, Shelby County had 1,431 new child COVID-19 cases, accounting for 78% of all new child cases across the state.
Children under the age of 12 are not eligible for the vaccine, and as a parent of young children, “me and a lot of other parents with children under 12 are all really terrified,” said Green.
In Hamilton County, students go back to school on Thursday without a mask mandate, prompting doctors and parents to urge the Hamilton County School Board and county Mayor Jim Coppinger to reconsider.
“If we don’t learn from our experiences last year, I fear at best we’ll see schools opening and closing, opening and closing, opening and closing, as this highly contagious virus spreads. At worst, we’ll experience even more entirely avoidable hospitalizations and deaths than we did last year. And this will be among our younger population,” said Dr. Mary Barnes, a pediatrician.
Jill Black, a Hamilton County parent, said she had avoided serious talks with her children in order not to scare them about returning to school in a pandemic.
Hamilton County had 1,315 COVID-19 cases among school children, with 97 new cases in the last 14 days.
Under Lee’s guidance, parents can choose whether their children wear a mask, but Black believes children are unlikely to wear a mask due to peer pressure from others. And without a mask mandate, COVID-19 outbreaks in schools will eventually filter out into the community, said Black.
“It feels like we’re offering up elementary students as tribute in the COVID hunger games,” said Black.
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