At least 14 Tennessee public school employees lost to COVID since academic year began

By: - September 17, 2021 4:59 am
(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

At least 14 employees of Tennessee public schools have died since the academic year began after contracting COVID-19 — a toll that no single public or private agency tracks.

The deaths, confirmed by the Tennessee Lookout, include a 42-year-old Metro Nashville Public Schools bus driver who “devoted himself to making sure every child on his bus route in the Cane Ridge cluster got to school and back home safely,” according to Adrienne Battle, schools director.

An 81-year Robertson County school bus driver and grandfather died Sept. 9 after contracting COVID. A 42-year-old father of three died on Sept. 2 just weeks into his new teaching job at a high school in Cumberland County. And a beloved high school history teacher for Johnson City Schools, who donned period costumes to go along with his lesson plans, died Aug. 29 at the age of 42 after falling ill with the virus.

The deaths occurred between Aug. 8 — when a 59-year-old Fayette County Public Schools teaching assistant died — and Sept. 9, with the passing of the Robertson County school bus driver, corresponding roughly to the first month of the school year for most of Tennessee’s 147 public school districts.

It is unknown whether any employee was exposed to COVID at school or outside of school. In at least two instances, educators fell sick before they ever set foot in a classroom, including one Memphis teacher who attended a teacher inservice before becoming ill.

The deaths of at least 14 public school employees include several school bus drivers, one of who was described as “devoted” to students.

The deaths among Tennessee public school employees mirror the toll of the virus on teachers and school staff in other states. In Georgia, more than 30 teachers and staff have died as a result of COVID complications since July. In Miami, the deaths of  13 public school teachers since the beginning of the academic year spurred the local teachers’ union to host a pop up vaccination clinic for employees. In Texas, the Connally Independent School District temporarily shut down after the deaths of two social studies teachers in the first weeks of the school year.

In Tennessee, the deaths have thus far gone un-noted by the Penny Schwinn, the state’s education commissioner, and Gov. Bill Lee. Neither Lee nor Schwinn responded to requests for comment about the losses.

The Tennessee Education Association, which represents school employees, has called for more local control of COVID mitigation efforts, but thus far districts have been constrained by state leaders on masking, vaccination and remote learning options.

Gov. Bill Lee, using his executive powers, ordered that masks must remain optional in schools, a decision challenged in three lawsuits, two filed by parents in Knox County and Shelby County, and one filed by lawyers for Shelby County. A federal judge, acting in a lawsuit filed by parents of children with disabilities in Shelby County, has temporarily halted enforcement of Lee’s executive order in Shelby County schools.

The Tennessee Lookout on Sept. 9 reported on the deaths of the first eight public school employees known to have died in the first month of school. The Lookout published the names of the Tennessee bus drivers, teachers, teaching assistants and cafeteria staff who died after contracting COVID, but is not reporting the names of additional individuals — who are not public figures — unless they can be accompanied by a fuller portrait provided by family members or colleagues.

The Lookout will continue to track deaths among public school employees. To report a death, please email the Lookout at [email protected]





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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.