One-fifth of Knox students absent

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Knox County Board of Education members at their Aug. 11 meeting. A special called session to deal with issues surrounding the COVID pandemic has been set for Wednesday. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

There was no way to tell how many of the 10,800-plus Knox County students who were absent from school Monday were sick with COVID versus how many were taking part in a “Sick Out” protest.

Perhaps it didn’t really matter. 

“It isn’t possible to tease out which of those are due to illness/exposure and which are due to protest,” said Eric Moore, the father of six school-age children who played a leading role in organizing the protest.

“No matter what, the numbers are somber. They show a failure of leadership in our schools. They show need for immediate action,” he said.

KCS officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on the protest.

The 81.7 percent student attendance rate was coupled with a 90.4 rate among staffers, according to Knox County Schools spokesperson Carly Harrington. 

Last Friday, approximately 9,300 students attended school, she said.

The Board of Education has scheduled a special session at 5 p.m. Wednesday to address the system’s response to the most recent phase of the COVID pandemic, which has been driven by a mutated strain of the coronavirus known as the Delta variant.

Parents like Moore are demanding that KCS resume contact tracing, offer a virtual classroom option, and require face masks to be worn on school property. They also want teachers and other staffers to receive more support from the administration, including extra paid sick days if they contract COVID.

While Moore considered the Sick Out a success, he also said it’s clear that not all parents agreed with their actions. 

“There have been opponents who have called for us to be arrested for child abuse,” he said. “And fencers who were afraid of not being able to make up work, afraid of unexcused absences.”

When classes ended last semester, it seemed as though most people were more than ready for the restrictions triggered by the pandemic to be over. 

School officials were eager to return to at least quasi-normal operations. Mask requirements, virtual learning options for any student who wanted them, and contact tracing were all ditched by optimistic officials. 

A lot has happened since then. Politically driven arguments over mask requirements, conspiracy theories centered around the vaccines, and the much more dangerous Delta variant have all combined to create a massive surge in case numbers.

As of Monday, at least 816 Knox students and 107 school staff members were infected with COVID, according to the county’s health department.

In Knox County, the coronavirus has killed at least 684 people and infected nearly 59,000 people since last year. There are currently at least 3,669 active cases, according to the Knox County Health Department.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on August 31, 2021