One of America’s first states to reopen schools in person, Tennessee serves as ‘experiment’ in COVID safety

Amid a low local infection rate and starting with small clusters of students, Alcoa Middle School last week became one of the nation’s first schools to reopen its campus to students during the pandemic. Within two days, a teacher with the sniffles tested positive for COVID-19.

The school, just south of Knoxville, Tennessee, didn’t shutter its building, however, as certainly would have happened last spring when the coronavirus began to spread across America. Instead, school officials quickly notified students and staff who came in contact with the infected teacher and directed them either to quarantine for 14 days or provide medical documentation showing they can safely return. The school got a thorough cleaning, and classes resumed the next school day.

Welcome to what could be the new normal of education in the age of the coronavirus.

Tennessee is one of the first states to begin a brick-and-mortar reopening of its schools, even as it passed the grim milestone this week of more than 1,000 COVID deaths in five months. Both distinctions have educators and parents on edge and asking whether it’s even possible to reopen school buildings safely when the highly contagious respiratory virus isn’t yet under control. Other states are watching to see what happens.

Gov. Bill Lee has led the drive to resume school in person, echoing the position of President Donald Trump. On Tuesday, Lee again urged leaders and parents to bring students back into the classroom — and not to delay the academic year, which for most of the state’s 147 districts kicks off in early August.

“In-person learning is the medically sound, preferred option,” he said as his administration released another round of guidance aimed at making the shutdown of school buildings an action of last resort.

Gov. Bill Lee visits a business in Franklin, Tennessee, on June 2. Lee has urged Tennesseans to wear masks but says he won’t order them to do so. State of Tennessee Photo Service

Ultimately, it’s up to local school officials to decide when and how to reopen schools, and the state’s two largest districts have opted to start virtually only in Memphis and Nashville. But the governor has used his bully pulpit to make his preferences clear. During this week’s hour-long press conference, Lee said the risks of keeping classrooms shuttered far outweigh risks associated with the virus for children who are hungry, abused, or emotionally traumatized, as well as students with disabilities who face inherent barriers to virtual instruction.

“We’re doing everything we can to create a safe environment,” said the Republican governor, who promised to “follow the data” to make school decisions and called Tennessee’s reopening part of a “nationwide experiment.”

Even Lee’s fans bristled at the inference that Tennessee school children may serve as guinea pigs for reopening school buildings during the pandemic. His critics, meanwhile, blamed him for not taking bolder steps, such as issuing a statewide mandate to wear masks, to suppress the virus as active cases continue to rise. That’s put educators, students, and parents in a tough spot, they say.

“There is nothing about this approach that’s data-driven,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat and minority leader in the state Senate. “You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that the current rate of spread in our state is dangerously high.”

COVID cases rising

Tennessee leads the nation in the percentage of COVID cases in people under age 18, according to a new report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In addition, all 95 of the state’s counties report active COVID cases, with numbers climbing in the vast majority of those, especially in rural areas.

The latter trend prompted a visit to Nashville this week from Dr. Deborah Birx, a key coronavirus adviser to the White House. After meeting with the governor, she told reporters that Tennessee is among a handful of states on the verge of a worsening outbreak as younger carriers who aren’t showing symptoms spread the virus unknowingly to people around them. Her recommendation: Close bars, limit indoor dining, and wear masks in public places.

Moments later, Lee said he had no plans to issue orders to follow those recommendations and reiterated that he’s not going to shut down the economy again. That frustrated Democratic leaders who have criticized Lee for his management of the public health crisis.

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