“Nobody is safe from the pandemic”

The Knox County Board of Education met for a work session Wednesday following the district's newly implemented mask mandate. Photo by Moira Charnot.


Have Knox County students slipped behind academically during the pandemic?

The short answer is “yes” — but not equally.

That was the message given to members of the Knox County Board of Education during their Wednesday work session. 

Newly released results from the 2021 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program testing solidified concerns that academic achievement declined as COVID-19 ravaged communities and wrecked routines in 2020. 

The damage impacted students across the board, but certain demographics suffered more than others, Director of Research and Evaluation Steven Rudder explained during the meeting.

 “There were a lot of challenges that happened over the last couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic that were out of schools’ control, teachers’ control, the superintendent’s control — that likely had very negative impacts on student achievement,” said Rudder.  

TCAP test results show that the total number of students who had mastered the material for their grade level fell from 10.5% in 2019 to 7.2% in 2021. There was no data available for 2020 due to testing being suspended during the pandemic.  

Rudder presented a high-level view of student proficiency results revealed by the latest round of testing. The data discussed included aggregated results from all subjects and all grade levels across the district.  

The data showed that students of color suffered significantly in learning outcomes amid the pandemic. Students who identify as Asian fell from 33% mastery in 2019 to 24% in 2021. Mastery rates among Black students fell from 3% to 1%, and Hispanic students dropped from 5% to 3% while mastery for white students fell from 12% to 9%. 

“The thing I take away from this is, nobody is safe from the pandemic,” said Rudder. “We see declines in each one of these categories.”

Students who are learning English as a second language and the economically disadvantaged also lost considerable ground, according to the data presented by Rudder. 

He referred to these groups as the county’s most “academically fragile.” 

“As you know, our district worked very hard to offset the impact of COVID-19 during the 2021 school year, but like many districts across the state, we did see student proficiency drop significantly in most subjects,” said Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas. “As superintendent, I want to focus on helping students gain any academic ground they may have lost.” 

 The new data comes at a difficult time for Knox County Schools, as educators and parents alike have expressed concerns about possible hindrances to learning due to difficulties associated with the newly implemented mask mandate. 

During his report to the School Board, Thomas described some of the problems that officials are running into as they try to implement the court-ordered mask requirement. 

“I am very appreciative of everyone’s effort, and the graciousness provided to our school staff. However, I’d like to acknowledge that this federal order has presented some ongoing challenges at our schools, and I’d like to talk about a few of those with you,” Thomas said.

“These include students who are not in class not receiving regular classroom instruction, staff who are pulled from their duties to supervise these students, and bus driver vacancies that were not filled before the mask order and are now complicated by drivers who refuse to wear a face mask,” he explained.

“And we have students with medical issues through their IEP or 504 plans but are not yet exempt from the order, and we have certified and classified employees who have either resigned or are at home for refusal to wear a face mask. We’re continuing to manage and monitor these situations as we work to comply with the federal order,” he said. 

Officials are currently dealing with students who refuse to wear masks by isolating them from their classmates while at school or sending them home, depending on how many times they refuse instructions to don one.

Only three Board members wore masks during Wednesday’s meeting: Jennifer Owen, Daniel Watson, and student representative Raymond Jin.

Several anti-mask protesters gathered at the meeting in the hopes of expressing their views on the mandate but were disappointed when the Board invoked a rule which allowed speakers at the public forum to only address topics specifically outlined in the meeting’s agenda.

Many speakers vowed to return at the next meeting to speak their piece, but Board members held firm on limiting speakers to the agreed-upon topics at hand. 

Eric Moore said he was concerned the school system could lose an expected $114 million Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) grant due to a lack of measures taken to combat the spread of the pandemic outside the federally imposed mask mandate.  

“The discussion about masks has been polarizing. Despite the division in our community right now, we are all unified in wanting this pandemic to end,” Moore said. “There is so much more we could be doing outside of the mask mandate like physical distancing, contact tracing, ventilation, encouraging vaccinations, and doing more to provide support for students with disabilities.”

The emergency relief funds are supposed to address learning loss and improve in-person learning. According to the U.S. Department of Education, districts eligible for the relief funds “must provide equitable services to students and teachers in non­public schools as required under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.” 

Other speakers expressed a desire for transparency amid the search for a new superintendent following the announcement that Bob Thomas is expected to soon retire.  

“In regards to the superintendent search, I think it is really important that you conduct this search in a way that is going to earn the trust of the community,” said Kristina Gehrman. “Because right now, we are all in a very vulnerable kind of ‘ouchie’ position, and I think that it’s the students and the teachers and their families who are really gonna be impacted by this decision, so you really need to consider input from them if you want to kind of heal some of the divisions in the community.” 

The School Board’s next meeting is Oct. 6. 

A video of Wednesday’s full meeting is available to view on the Knox County Schools website along with the meeting agenda.

Megan Sadler can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on September 30, 2021.