Parents battle schools over COVID

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(Note: Please see correction at https://hardknoxwire.com/new-eating-crow/)

Hundreds of Knox County students and teachers were out sick with COVID last week, triggering a furious backlash from parents who believe school officials are risking lives.

As of Sunday evening, numerous groups of parents, teachers and other stakeholders were using social media to vent frustrations and organize a response — especially those pushing for a “sick out” across the Knox County school system today.

They’re asking that parents keep their children home today as a form of protest against Knox County Schools officials who have done relatively little in the face of the pandemic when compared to how they responded to the illness last year. 

It wasn’t clear how many parents were planning to take part in the sick out, but the Facebook group Knoxville Parents Against COVID (one of the main sites used by organizers) has gained nearly 4,000 followers over the past few days, administrator Kim Deakins said Sunday.

Parents are especially angry that KCS officials haven’t followed through with assurances made earlier this year that they would comply with the recommendations given by public health authorities.

Although KCS officials have announced a special called meeting Wednesday of the Board of Education, any decisions made at the meeting will be too late to protect the 807 students and 98 staff members confirmed to be infected as of Friday.

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.

The implications of school policies potentially affect everyone in the region, as the recent spike in COVID cases caused by the Delta variant have nearly overwhelmed area hospitals. 

Eric Moore of North Knoxville, father of seven children (six of them school age), said he recently pulled his children from Shannondale Elementary due to COVID concerns.  

Nonetheless, Moore said Sunday that his family’s luck had finally run out despite nearly two years of following strict precautions. 

The blame, he said, lies with the KCS officials who have refused to protect schoolchildren and their teachers.

“Our sixth-grader just tested positive after 20-plus months of keeping them safe,” Moore said. “Inevitably, they all have it now.  She is miserable. Just got the test today, after symptoms began yesterday, so the others aren’t symptomatic yet.”

Eric Moore

He continued: “We know she got it from school because otherwise we stay quarantined. This is a direct result of their negligence.”

Moore was one of the earliest proponents of today’s planned sick out. He seemed cautiously optimistic that a concerted action by hundreds or thousands of parents might force administrators to change policies.

“We just are afraid for our kids and want to see change,” he said. “We hope that by ramping that up just before their meeting on Wednesday, we put more pressure on…. They claim to be concerned about learning loss, but are failing to make policies that reduce outage and failing to have systems in place to support learners who must be out.”

When asked for comment on the planned sick out, KCS spokesperson Carly Harrington said that children need to be in school. 

“We had seen the social media post encouraging a student sick out. We obviously do not support keeping students home if they are not sick or quarantined. As we have stated previously, our students need to be in the classroom learning,” she said. 

The School Board’s special session is scheduled to take place at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the boardroom on the first floor of the Andrew Johnson Building. 

Board members Daniel Watson and Virginia Babb have included proposals that would require masks to be worn by “all students, staff, and visitors while indoors” (in Watson’s version) or by “students, staff, and visitors in pre-kindergarten through 5th grade schools while indoors and on school buses” (in Babb’s proposal).

Even if a mask requirement is passed, it remains to be seen if it can be enforced in light of Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order that allows parents to exempt their children from school mask mandates. 

Hard Knox Wire tried to contact every School board member for this story but only two of them — Babb and Watson — responded. 

“I am glad a special session has been called to address the concerns over COVID,” said Babb. “I am not sure exactly what will be discussed but I do think it is important for the board to speak to the concerns of our community and address them. Since our last board meeting much has changed about the spread of Covid as well as directives we are receiving from our state leadership.”

Watson said he wasn’t about to urge parents not to stage a sick in or other type of protest. 

“I’m not going to dissuade anybody from advocating for something they feel passionate about,” he said. 

Watson said he agreed with parents who’ve felt betrayed over promises made by KCS administrators to follow the recommendations of public health agencies. 

“Some parents feel some frustration about that,” he said. “I feel the same way. … We need a very robust, layered COVID mitigation strategy. The system is doing some things, certainly, but I don’t think we’re doing things as robustly as we were last year. I do think it’s important to note that some tools have changed…I would love to see us have a robust strategy, but some things are not on the table.”

Daniel Watson

According to Alistair Elliott, a local activist and parent of a high school student, a “robust strategy” would address everything from masks to contact tracing, which KCS has left to the Health Department this year.  The lack of official, school-based contact tracing has prompted parents to create their own groups to monitor COVID cases at schools in their neighborhoods.

“After seeing people form groups all across Knoxville to do their own contact tracing, it became apparent that most parents in Knox County are actually concerned about COVID and it’s spreading through the schools at a rapid rate,” said Elliot. “I believe many parents in Knox County expected our school board to act responsibly and in a bipartisan fashion to keep our children and the community safe. They failed to do so.”

Elliott continued: “Parents across Knox County feel it is now time to stand up and apply greater pressure than was applied to the school board by anti-maskers before school started. Our goal is to get KCS to enact policies that follow CDC guidelines like they told us all they would do when we agreed to send our kids back by the deadline in April. We agreed under false pretenses and we want them to honor the original conditions the agreement was made upon — masks in schools, contact tracing, proper sanitizing, and all other measures that would reduce the spread of COVID in our community.”

KCS Superintendent Bob Thomas issued a statement Friday in which he addressed many of the concerns voiced by parents. He pointed out that KCS had launched an online dashboard that contained the numbers of active, confirmed student and staff cases. 

“KCS is partnering with KCHD as they conduct contact tracing to provide available, relevant information – including seating charts, schedules and class rosters,” Thomas said.

“Our outstanding teachers are providing asynchronous assignments to students who are in isolation or quarantine, and our dedicated custodians are continuing to sanitize buildings daily and to mist common areas using a COVID-certified disinfectant.”

Thomas added that students and staff are expected to maintain “three feet of physical distancing while indoors to the greatest extent possible.” He also said that KCS is “providing hand sanitizer in each classroom and encouraging everyone to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.”

Moore, however, said he has been disturbed by reports that teachers “are being muzzled” and said that he’s “gotten reports from teachers about a serious lack of cleaning protocols.”

No KCS teachers have been willing to speak with Hard Knox Wire on the record about the situations they face at school right now, citing concerns that they could be disciplined or fired if they did so.

In addition to renewing their commitment to follow the recommendations of public health authorities, Moore said he wants “to further see provisions for inevitable outages among teachers and students, COVID sick leave bank restoration for teachers, and virtual learning options arranged for learners.”

According to Moore, the lack of an effective COVID strategy is the result of several factors.

“One consistent element is that the pandemic and responses to it have been enmeshed with politics,” he said. “So, for example, many of our leaders are libertarian and exercise that political philosophy in handling policies that would call for people to give up personal choice. Examples include (Knox County Mayor) Glenn Jacobs’ refusal to make or enforce mask mandates and Bill Lee’s speech in which he explicitly gave ‘power’ to parents to decide about masks.”

He continued: “Health experts have pointed out time and again that mask wearing protects other people far more than the mask wearer. Hence, allowing ‘personal freedom’ here is akin to allowing for speeding or hate speech. It’s not just an individual freedom, it’s damage to others’ fundamental rights.”

Moore said that many people believe they are “doing the right thing by opposing masks or vaccines” but he hopes that elected leaders will let their decision-making be driven by facts.

“I believe that our government system can withstand that, as we are a republic — not a democracy. People who are in power have access to reliable sources of information. They have the means and responsibility to find truth and act upon it, however unpopular it may be. And that is what we want from our leaders,” he said. 

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

Published on August 30, 2021