Mask mandate fails despite pleas

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Dr. Kristy Carter, a pediatrician from Farragut, addresses the Knox County Board of Education at Wednesday’s called meeting. Photo by Moira Charnot.

Parents angry over the lack of anti-COVID measures to protect students and employees of Knox County Schools won a mixed bag of protections from the Board of Education at a called meeting Wednesday night. 

They secured paid leave days for workers forced to isolate because of COVID and also gained schools-based tracking of infections.

They failed, however, to sway a majority of Board members to pass any version of the evening’s most controversial proposal — requiring everyone on school property to wear masks while indoors. 

The special meeting was called as the result of parental fury and the skyrocketing number of COVID cases in the schools. 

No fewer than 60 people had signed up to speak in the public forum that opened the meeting, split more or less evenly between pro- and anti-mask partisans. School officials said they regretted having to cap the number of speakers at 60, but there simply wasn’t enough time or meeting space to allow for a greater number. 

Only members of the public who were registered to speak at the forum and media representatives were allowed into the first-floor boardroom of the Andrew Johnson Building.

The decision to limit admission prompted the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government to tweet the following message: “Not a good look and not good to tell the public at the last minute that they can’t come to a public meeting. Tennessee, surely you can get open meetings law right. Get a bigger room.”

The forum ultimately lasted nearly three hours even though speakers were limited to only three minutes apiece. The number of speakers was more or less evenly split between the two sides of the masking argument, which dominated the meeting.

“My son is too young to be vaccinated,” Jordan Kimmet, a Knox County nurse practitioner, told Board members. “He is one of only four children in his class who wears a mask. He tells me his teachers do not wear masks indoors, students sit close together in his classroom, and multiple classes eat together in the cafeteria.”

According to a COVID case dashboard recently released by the Knox County Health Department that tracks the overall number of confirmed cases in the school system, there were 219 student cases on August 23. By Wednesday’s meeting, however, 750 students plus 140 staffers were known to be sick. 

“While I am also anxious for things to return to normal, I believe that the exponential rise in cases in our schools makes it impossible for us to safely continue as we are now,” Kimmet continued.

Kimmet was one of several medical professionals who spoke in favor of following the guidelines suggested by public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control. 

Board members were told that Knox County educators were concerned with not only their own health, but also their ability to keep students safe with the limited COVID regulations in place.

“An educator is obligated to their students to make every reasonable effort to protect students from conditions harmful to learning, or to health and safety,” said Paula Hancock, President of the Knox County Education Association. “In times like these, educators are finding themselves in a uniquely challenging positions with an extremely vulnerable population.”

Protesters gather outside the Andrew Johnson Building immediately prior to Wednesday’s called meeting of the Board of Education. Most of the crowd wasn’t allowed into the meeting due to a lack of space. Photo by Moira Charnot.

The Board unanimously approved COVID isolation leave for KCS employees through the end of June 2022.  Employees are only allowed one period of leave and they can’t miss more than 10 days within a two-week period.

The Board also voted unanimously for a COVID case dashboard that will allow the tracking and reporting of confirmed COVID cases in individual schools, although the county Law Department will provide guidance to ensure the privacy of students and employees isn’t compromised.

Coming into the meeting, the lack of transparency regarding COVID case numbers in individual schools had been cited as a leading cause of frustration among parents.

“There’s a lot of confusion, there’s a lot of frustration, and there’s a lot of fear. I personally have no way to know if my kids have been exposed to COVID,” said Justin Arft, a University of Tennessee professor. “We deserve to know whether we are at risk or not.”

“I believe we should have been doing this from the very beginning and, since we haven’t, I believe the board has the responsibility to step in and require some of these measures now,” said Board member Betsy Henderson, who proposed the dashboard motion.

An attempt to pass the most hotly contested proposal of the night — a universal indoors masking requirement — failed by a single vote. 

Even though the proposed motion allowed opt-out forms for parents and many other exceptions to when masks would be required, supporters still couldn’t generate enough support to overcome the Board’s skeptics. 

“Kids are at church, they’re at sleepovers, they are everywhere else without a mask,” said board member Kristi Kristy, who opposed the measure. “And the other thing is, at the end of the day, this is still an optional mask policy.”

Board member Jennifer Owen argued that the rapid spread of the disease through the schools had to be stopped. 

“Last year for Knox County — just Knox County, just COVID positive cases, just for 5 to 18-year-olds, the highest point was 103 cases, on December 17—that was our peak,” Owen said. “Yesterday, in Knox County, for 5 to 18-year-olds, we had 217 cases. That’s more than double, and we are barely a month into school.”

Owen said there have been 16 pediatric deaths in Tennessee since the pandemic began, six of them in the last month. 

Board member Evetty Satterfield pointed out the physical and emotional toll that working in the school system was having on educators. “Our teachers, they’re looking like it’s April, and it’s 18 days in,” she said.

Board member Virginia Babb, who supported the mask requirement, was skeptical that a mandate would “carry much weight” in Knox County.

Plus, she said, the debate over mask wearing obscured the most important factor in minimizing the spread of the disease.

“I wish people would get their damn vaccines,” she said, drawing loud applause from the audience. “If people back in May had gotten their vaccines, we’d be in a different situation right now.”

Board members Kristy, Henderson, Mike McMillan, Patti Bounds and Susan Horn voted against a masking requirement while Satterfield, Owen, Babb and Daniel Watson voted for it. 

(Left to right) Board members Patti Bounds, Mike McMillan and Kristi Kristy during Wednesday’s called meeting. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

Eric Moore, a North Knoxville parent who helped organize a “Sick Out” early this week to protest the lack of COVID precautions, said after the meeting that he was “baffled and heartbroken.”

Anti-mask speakers offered nothing but “more lies about ‘gasping for air’ in masks, lies about there not being evidence of masks working,” he said.

“This is an education board defying medical professionals, education professionals, scientists,” Moore said. “This is academic nihilism…. This isn’t just a dereliction of duty with serious, life and death consequences. It is an assault on education itself. This is a dark day for Knox County Schools, our community, and our state. But mostly for our children, teachers, and families.”

Since the pandemic began early last year, at least 701 people in Knox County have died and 1,544 have been hospitalized out of 61,226 who have been infected, according to the county health department. 

There were an estimated 4,654 active cases in Knox County on Wednesday.

Prior to the meeting, scores of protesters gathered outside the Andrew Johnson Building to express their frustration at the lack of strict health protocols. 

Many of the parents speaking out at the protest voiced concerns for their disabled children and how the rise in COVID cases has affected their ability to learn in a safe environment.

William Wilson said the lack of protections resulted in his child — who is autistic and unable to communicate his symptoms to others — testing positive for COVID on Tuesday.

“I’m indescribably angry,” Wilson said. “This board is incompetent. Our state government is incompetent. Our county government is incompetent, and they’ve endangered all of us.”

Kimberly Peterson said her daughter has a rare genetic syndrome and frequently missed school before the pandemic. 

Thankfully, due to the many disability accommodations the child’s school offered her, she was still able to thrive in the classroom when she was able to attend.

The lack of COVID protections, however, now poses a threat to her child’s health, she said. 

Kimberly Peterson, whose daughter has a rare genetic syndrome, addresses her fellow protesters Wednesday outside the Andrew Johnson Building. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

“Do you think I’m going to offer up my twelve-year-old child with disabilities to be sacrificed again? No way,” Peterson said.

Her loss of faith in the willingness of KCS officials to provide adequate COVID protections caused Peterson to switch to homeschooling, which means she’s now struggling to provide the resources necessary for her daughter’s education.

“There’s no virtual instruction for children with disabilities,” Peterson explained. “There’s lots of programs online, but nothing that is tailored to give her what she needs the way that her teachers and aids and therapists give her what she needs …. We’re hearing a lot about other people’s rights, but what about my daughter’s rights to her education?”

State Representative Gloria Johnson attended the protest to throw her support behind the assembled parents, teachers and students. 

“I’m here to give a voice to the teachers and the parents and the students who need to be heard, who are, as the teachers tell me, sitting ducks in their classrooms right now,” Johnson said.

CORRECTION: Dr. Kristy Carter, pictured in the lead photo, was initially misidentified in a cutline in an earlier version of this story. We apologize for the error.

Moira Charnot can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Editor J.J. Stambaugh contributed to this report.

Published on September 2, 2021.