Pandemic’s deadliest day; schools release dashboard

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The local death toll from the COVID pandemic reached a grisly plateau on Tuesday as it was announced that 15 people had died from the disease in Knox County in a 24-hour period. 

According to the Knox County Health Department, COVID has killed at least 749 people in Knox County out of an estimated 69,170 who have been infected since the pandemic began. 

Also Tuesday, Knox County Schools officials released a new, school-level dashboard meant to allow the community to see which schools are most affected by the disease. 

Although it was too early to tell how the dashboard would be received, the initial responses from users were overwhelmingly negative due to concerns about accuracy. 

Deadliest days of pandemic 

At least 42 people in Knox County were killed by the coronavirus over the seven-day period between Sept. 6 and 13, according to statistics from the health department.

Prior to Tuesday, the worst single day for reported COVID deaths came when 14 people died on Jan. 20 of this year.  At that time, vaccines still weren’t widely available and the pandemic was reaching what, at the time, appeared to be its peak. 

Now, however, highly effective inoculations are readily available to virtually everyone. The problem — as has been pointed out for months by health authorities — is that many people refuse to be vaccinated, usually citing a mistrust of the vaccines caused by numerous conspiracy theories or other types of misinformation.

Only a little more than half of Knox County residents have been vaccinated, leading to thousands of preventable infections and threatening to overwhelm area hospitals. The overwhelming majority of deaths in Tennessee this summer have been among those not vaccinated, officials say.

According to Tuesday’s numbers from the Health Department, there were 5,957 active cases in the county. 

Health officials continue to plead with the public to get vaccinated, to wear masks when indoors, and to practice social distancing.

School dashboard “complex process”

The pandemic has triggered bitter partisan and ideological struggles over issues such as immunization, whether to mandate mask wearing, and keeping children in class as opposed to remote learning. 

One of the most heated local debates has raged around the Knox County Schools’ COVID dashboard, which until Tuesday had only shown systemwide data rather than allowing users to see how many cases were at individual schools. 

The new version that was unveiled Tuesday evening gave a detailed breakdown of both student and employee absences at each of the system’s campuses.

What it didn’t provide, however, were precise numbers of known COVID cases. Users were instead given a range, such as “equal to or less than 5” or “equal to or less than 15.”

School officials said that more precise numbers couldn’t be provided without putting the private medical information of individual students at risk. 

Superintendent Bob Thomas sent out an email explaining some of the system’s limitations, such as “absences reported for each school are total numbers, and are not limited to COVID-related absences.”

“The district is working with the Knox County Health Department (KCHD) to compile these numbers and share them with the public,” Thomas said. “However, this is a complex process, and additional details regarding the data collection and reporting process can be found on our website.”

The dashboard also didn’t solve another problem that’s bothered many users — the number of active COVID cases provided can’t be reconciled with the data provided by the Tennessee and Knox County health departments (which also don’t always agree with each other).

On Tuesday, for instance, the dashboard reported a total of 363 active cases in the entire school system, including 298 students and 65 staff members. 

That number, however, was greatly exceeded by the 382 students listed as absent from only two of the system’s 88 schools. 

South-Doyle High School, for instance, had 183 students and 11 employees absent on Tuesday. The dashboard, however, claimed that five or less students and zero staffers were known to be suffering from COVID. 

Although Fulton High School was listed as having 15 or less active COVID cases among students and five or less among employees, 199 students (21 percent of the entire student body) and six staffers were absent.

Interestingly, the dashboard didn’t provide a systemwide total of absent students or teachers. To discover that number, users had to go through the time-consuming process of subtracting the number of absences from the total enrollment at each of the system’s 88 individual schools and then add them all together.   

One parents’ group, KCS-PASS, has created its own dashboard that purports to give a more accurate picture of how the coronavirus has been moving through the district.

According to KCS-PASS — which uses data pulled from the state Department of Health — there were 1,635 active cases among school-age children (defined as being 5 to  18 years of age), a 753 percent increase since the 2021-22 school year began. 

“Like pushing a rope”

While KCS officials have pointed to several reasons for the discrepancies such as reporting lags and various types of delays in the contact tracing process, their explanations seemed to be falling largely on deaf ears.

To say that most of the parents, teachers, and students who were discussing the dashboard late Tuesday on various social media platforms were unhappy is something of an understatement. 

“So it’s a school absence dashboard, not a COVID dashboard,” remarked one person. 

“Exactly who are they doing this for? I simply cannot understand the audience,” said another. “Exhausting to have to push for every smidge of meaningful info. This is like pushing a rope.”

Eric Moore, a father of six school-age children who’s helped organize grassroots opposition to KCS, said the dashboard is yet another disappointment for those who hoped KCS would listen to parents. 

“I don’t mean to sound like I’m a hardass, but it’s pretty clear that they are incompetent. People are getting emails from their school saying that there are cases when the dashboard shows none. In some cases, people know personally more kids out than the dashboard shows,” Moore said.

“Further, in an email Bob Thomas sent out, he implies that the dashboard is showing all student outages, not just those COVID-related,” he continued. “This latest message only adds to the confusion and uselessness of the dashboard.”

He added: “The parents who care about the dashboard don’t trust it, with good reason. At this point, it looks like the Board of Education, Bob Thomas, and company are pretending to meet basic demands, but are fooling no one.”

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

Published on September 15, 2021.