School board passes anti-LGBTQ measures

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Protesters gather in front of the City-County Building prior to Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Education. Photo by Moira Charnot.

New policies that target LGBTQ students attending Knox County schools were approved by the Board of Education at its Wednesday meeting. 

Board members also heard concerns about discrepancies in local COVID statistics and agreed to ease the paths of students forced to remain home while isolating due to the coronavirus.

One of the policies approved Wednesday concerned accommodations for restrooms and changing facilities such as locker rooms. Based on House Bill 1233, which was signed into law by Governor Bill Lee in May, the policy claims to provide “reasonable accommodations” for people who desire greater privacy when using those facilities in a school. 

The policy, however, strictly excludes transgender children from using a restroom that aligns with their gender identity — such children will only be allowed to use single-occupancy or employee restrooms.  

The policy specifies that “a valid original birth certificate is to be provided to determine a student’s sex at the time of birth,” and children will be barred from using any restrooms or changing facilities used by the “opposite” sex. 

School principals will be responsible for approving or denying accommodations for individual students, and those who believe they were unfairly denied will be allowed to appeal to the Board. 

The measure passed unanimously, with no discussion.

A policy banning transgender children from participating in student athletics also passed with no dissenting votes. Under the policy, students must participate as a member of the sex they were assigned at birth if they are to be involved in any interscholastic athletic activity. The student must be able to prove their assigned sex at birth with a valid birth certificate.

By mirroring a pair of anti-LGBTQ bills that Lee signed into law this year, the new measures brought the school system another step closer toward being in agreement with Tennessee statutes. 

Since the bills were signed by Lee, several incidents of discrimination against transgender students have taken place in Tennessee, including two students harassing a transgender boy without any repercussions and the police being called on a student who defended a fellow transgender student from being bullied by other students.

The Board also voted  Wednesday to count students as “present” when they are in isolation due to COVID and doing virtual schoolwork in lieu of attending in-person classes. Since COVID can cause students to miss school for several days at a time, the policy ensures students aren’t wrongly labelled as “chronically absent” and aren’t subject to Tennessee’s truancy laws.

In order to be counted as present, the student must complete two of the following four criteria:

1. Participate in a phone call with a teacher.

2. Participate in live virtual instruction.

3. Complete their work on Canvas, the website that schools use for online classes.

4. Submit all makeup work either virtually or as a hard copy.

“There is no replacement for the student being in a classroom with a teacher every day,” Assistant Superintendent Jon Rysewyk said. “But it’s better to have asynchronous assignment that is tied to that so the student has a better chance to at least be caught up.”

Brian Carniello, vice-chair of KCS PASS, speaks to the School Board during public forum on Wednesday. Photo by Moira Charnot.

During a special called Board meeting last week, concerns were raised over the policy by board members who didn’t want to burden teachers with additional online work.

 Rysewyk, however, assured Board members the administration is aware of the potential challenges teachers could face and multiple virtual learning options will be available to aid them.

“In addition, I do think it’s a great opportunity post-COVID for students out for orthodontist appointments for strep throat, the flu, or those kinds of things, that people would have a common place to go and get makeup work,” Rysewyk continued.

On Wednesday, Knox County Schools’ COVID dashboard reported a total of 746 cases, with 594 positive students and 152 positive staff.

Prior to the meeting, a small group carrying signs stood outside the City-County building to protest last week’s decision by the Board to not require students and faculty to wear masks indoors. 

A few people who spoke at public forum expressed their concerns regarding other COVID policies.

“We’re asking that there be individual school dashboards,” said Brian Carniello, vice-chair of KCS PASS, a recently formed, volunteer-based nonprofit organization focused on COVID-related safety issues in the schools.

The Board voted last week for a COVID case dashboard that will allow the tracking and reporting of cases in individual schools using the same data already gathered by the Health Department. Until the new system is in place, the dashboard only shows data for the entire district.

Carniello cited inconsistencies between the numbers reported on the schools system’s COVID dashboard, the Knox County Health Department, and the Tennessee Department of Health. “The disparities of those numbers have caused a lot of concern for parents,” Carniello said.

Discrepancies in the data had been noted Wednesday by many parents as well as several media outlets, prompting KCS officials to issue a statement describing in detail how the numbers are gathered and analyzed.

“The district has received several questions regarding the COVID-19 dashboard,” explained KCS spokesperson Josh Flory. “This update was issued to provide additional transparency regarding the data collection and reporting process.”

The KCS statement said: 

In an effort to provide transparency to families and employees regarding COVID-19, Knox County Schools last month began publishing a dashboard with data related to student and staff cases within our district.

The district is working with the Knox County Health Department to compile these numbers and share them with the public. However, as part of this effort, it is important to note several features of the data collection and reporting process:

The number of active cases on the dashboard only represents the number of case subjects interviewed by KCHD. KCHD only receives school-level information from case subjects that complete a case investigation form. This form is used to confirm that a case subject is a KCS student / staff member. When cases are reported to public health, KCHD only receives basic information, such as the name, age and some contact information. KCHD must then determine if they are a KCS student. The only way for public health to know which school a student attends (or whether they are in public, private or a homeschool, for example) is to gather that information through a case investigation form.

  • Due to the immense volume of cases statewide, there may be delays at every stage of the process, including:
    • A delay for individuals who are seeking a test, which often takes several days;
    • How long it takes for a lab to process the results;
    • The time it takes for information to be sent to public health officials, which currently takes several days;
    • The time needed for public health officials to make contact with the individual. Acknowledging these factors, by the time some case subjects are interviewed, their case may exceed the 10-day symptom onset date, which is how KCS classifies an active case.
  • KCHD is not able to collect information on every individual that is 5-17 years old. In some cases, parents may not be able to respond to texts or calls; KCHD may not have accurate contact information; or the case may not be reported to public health officials. In any health emergency, it is expected that public health officials will not be able to reach all case subjects. The current volume statewide only exacerbates this.

 The goal of Knox County Schools is to provide accurate and timely information regarding COVID-19 cases within our district, and we are working to enhance our dashboard with school-specific data. In the meantime, we urge families to take the following actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to support in-person learning:

  • Provide relevant information to contact-tracing officials from KCHD;
  • Make sure that students stay home when they are sick and when they are asked to isolate / quarantine by public health;
  • Ensure that eligible family members are vaccinated; and
  • Consider the use of masks for students who attend school in person.

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

Published on September 9, 2021