Commentary: Adults throwing Knox County kids under a school bus

September 2, 2021 5:00 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)

Three weeks of school are in the books, and it is now clear that the kids in our schools are bearing the brunt of the latest surge in COVID-19 cases. How bad is it? Simply, this is the worst point in the pandemic for Knox County’s kids, by far. And while case counts among children are skyrocketing, the adults at the helm of Knox County Schools (KCS) collectively shrug.

As the dad of a KCS third grader, the health crisis in our schools has been keeping me up at night.  And since my day job involves analyzing social and economic data, I decided to run some numbers. What I found is disturbing.

Nathan Kelly, Ph.D. (Photo: Texture Photo)
Nathan Kelly, Ph.D. (Photo: Texture Photo)

By accessing publicly available data from the Tennessee Department of Health and the U.S. Census American Community Survey, I found that the number of COVID-19 cases among school-age kids, those ages 5 to 18.  is higher than it has been at any point in the pandemic.  Cases are increasing faster than ever before. Notably, these numbers don’t include many of our students with disabilities, some of the most vulnerable and often marginalized students, who make up portions of the student population in age ranges of 3-5 (Pre-K) and 19-22 years of age.

The figure above plots the history of the pandemic for Knox County kids (age 5 to 18). Until recently, the most acute moment in the pandemic for this group was in mid-December of last year, when each day saw an average of about 100 new cases per 100,000 kids in the county. Now, that number has more than doubled. The current upward trajectory is steep.

Throughout the pandemic, we have regularly seen reports of the daily number of new COVID cases per 100,000 people calculated at the state level. If there were a state comprised only of kids in our county, it would have the highest level of COVID-19 spread in the country. According to the Washington Post COVID tracker, Mississippi would currently be in second place with 106 new cases per 100,000. That’s right, COVID-19 is spreading at almost double the rate among Knox County kids than it is in the hardest hit state in the country right now. Over the entire course of the pandemic, no state has ever experienced higher case growth rates ( This comparison cannot tell us whether our kids are worse off than kids in other places, but it does show that COVID-19 is now targeting kids at unprecedented rates.

A skeptic might respond that high pediatric case counts don’t necessarily lead to massive amounts of serious illness. The best estimates suggest that COVID-19 “only” produces 1 to 3 deaths per 10,000 pediatric cases. As a parent of one child, such low probabilities are reassuring. 

But KCS leaders don’t have the luxury of focusing on a single child when thinking about COVID-19 risks. They should be thinking about ALL 60,000 students. The fatality rate cited above would lead to as many as 18 deaths if the disease is allowed to spread unmitigated through the entire student population. That is an alarming possibility, but one that elected officials and school administrators should be focused on avoiding.

We are in an emergency situation, requiring emergency action from both leaders and individuals. But what have our KCS leaders done so far this year? Not much. Mostly, we have heard excuses about why so many of the in-person mitigation strategies implemented last year –  detailed contact tracing, rigorous physical distancing, and universal face coverings to name a few – cannot happen. What KCS students need is action, not buck-passing. What’s worse, KCS administrators are getting in the way of parents trying to protect their kids, preventing us from donating single-room HEPA filters that can quickly clean classroom air to reduce the likelihood of infection as recommended by public health authorities

No silver-bullet will immediately bring the pandemic to an end. But the layered strategies that were used in our schools last year performed well. I call on leaders at the local and state level to enact a full complement of layered mitigation strategies to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our schools. 

The governor must lift orders that restrict the actions local school districts can take. The Knox County Board of Education should immediately seek the resignation of Superintendent Bob Thomas and replace him with a leader capable of aggressively implementing ALL CDC recommendations for a safe reopening of schools, even if this means ignoring the governor’s orders. Every mitigation tool available should be used to defeat the current outbreak. District leadership knows what to do – now they need to do it.

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Nathan Kelly
Nathan Kelly

Nathan Kelly received his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is co-director of the Tennessee Chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, volunteers as the director of data and analysis at Knox County Schools-Parent Advocates for School Safety (, is the author of numerous books and articles and is a recipient of the Carnegie Corporation Fellowship. The views here are his alone.