Just a week before the start of many Tennessee schools, Gov. Bill Lee, along with the Department of Education and Department of Health, issued a series of guidelines for the safe reopening of schools across the state.
Lee announced his recommendations Tuesday during a press conference in Nashville. The governor said delays and closures for schools should be considered an “extreme” option.
"Make no mistake, extended time away from the classroom is harmful for children," Lee said. "We fully support reopening our schools with in-person learning as the best option. Planned delays should be reserved for the most extreme situations."
He said that in-person learning is the first priority, but added it’s “incredibly important” parents have a choice in the matter.
During the press conference, Lee also announced a boost to schools under the new guidelines and enough cleaning supplies and PPE for teachers to last the school year.
The state is providing free PPE, including face masks for any school member who wants or needs one. This includes thermometers for every school, face shields for every staff member, 298,000 reusable cloth face masks and 27 million disposable masks for students distributed by the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
Every classroom teacher will have a full-year classroom disinfecting kit to use “so no teacher pays for these materials out of their own pockets,” the governor’s announcement said. The kits include hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, gloves and masks.
School nurses will also be given PPE, including surgical masks, gloves, protective gowns and face shields.
For technology, TDOE is offering up to $50 million in grants for wifi and technology access for schools. Earlier this month, Education Commissioner Dr. Penny Schwinn announced the governor was allocating additional resources for schools, stating the $50 million was enough to pay for one-third of a new computer for every student in the state of Tennessee. TDOE stated it has 250,000 devices available as well.
Officials emphasized that schools are expected to follow the new safe reopening guidelines released by Lee’s administration Tuesday.
The new guidelines require a 10-day sick window for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19. The guidelines state individuals must stay home 10 days from the onset of their symptoms or 10 days from the date of their test if they were asymptomatic. If a fever is present, it must be gone and they must be feeling well for at least 24 hours before returning to schools, the new guidelines state.
Those within six feet of someone with COVID-19 for 10 minutes or longer, as opposed to the previous 15-minute guideline, must quarantine themselves for 14 days from the last day of contact with that person. The guidelines state these time periods do not change with a doctor’s note.
The Department of Health is asking for assistance in contact tracing with parents as well. The Tennessee Department of Health is asking parents to contact their child’s close contacts and advise those individuals to quarantine at home, ideally decreasing the workload on the Tennessee Department of Health’s contact tracers who have been overwhelmed by backlogs in testing centers causing delays in contact tracing.
For school systems, the Department of Health is recommending text platforms be used for contact tracing.
While the Tennessee Department of Education plans to continue providing resources like ReadyRosie and partnering with PBS for educational programming, Schwinn and Lee announced the STE(A)M Resource Hub, which adds three STEAM challenges per week “to spark creative thinking, design, and career exploration from the home” in addition to a free, optional assessment to measure student performance at the beginning of the year.
Continuing in-person learning is critical for the well-being of Tennessee’s youngest residents, Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said.
“Leading health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics, and National Academies of Sciences, Mathematics, and Engineering, have all stressed the importance of in-person learning for students,” said Piercey. “The Department of Health has worked with the Department of Education to establish a protocol to keep school buildings open safely and cause minimal disruption when positive cases occur.”
Unchanged by the guidelines are schools’ immunization schedules. Even for at-home learning, Lee and Schwinn emphasized that immunizations are still required for school registration.
Officials recognized that COVID-19 has “had a significant impact on immunization rates: 43 percent fewer immunizations were reported during April 2020 compared to April 2019,” according to a press release.
“It is critical that children receive regular check-ups and have their immunizations up to date. Immunizations mitigate outbreaks of preventable diseases, such as the measles and whooping cough,” Lee said.
To further boost districts, TDOE is providing school systems with a “decision tree” that includes recommendations of how to proceed and keep schools open safely. TDOE is also instituting a job board to quickly fill vacancies more quickly, adding that “more than 1,000 educators have already utilized the job board, showing the strong teaching workforce present in Tennessee.”
At 3 p.m. Tuesday, when the Tennessee Department of Health typically releases its updated case count for the state and its counties, the Department of Health announced a delay in its data-tracking system. The data was released later Tuesday evening.
As of Tuesday, Bradley County has 1,525 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 496 active cases. Monday brought the county’s 10th COVID-19 death, and the death toll remained at 10 Tuesday. At least 1,019 have recovered.
In Tennessee, 99,044 individuals have been confirmed with the novel coronavirus, including a new 2,555 cases Tuesday. An additional 21 individuals were confirmed to have died of COVID-19 Tuesday, bringing the total to 999.
Confirmed case totals for Bradley County neighbors include:
• Grundy: 89 cases, 62 recoveries and 2 deaths;
• Hamilton: 5,253 cases, 3,370 recoveries and 44 deaths;
• Marion: 184 cases, 96 recoveries and 4 deaths;
• McMinn: 438 cases, 282 recoveries and 20 deaths;
• Meigs: 83 cases, 36 recoveries and 0 deaths;
• Monroe: 289 cases, 155 recoveries and 9 deaths;
• Polk: 116 cases, 57 recoveries and 0 deaths;
• Rhea: 452 cases, 322 recoveries and 1 deaths; and
• Sequatchie: 86 cases, 52 recoveries and 0 deaths.
Counties with Tennessee's highest numbers of cases include:
• Bedford: 785 cases, 590 recoveries and 10 deaths;
• Bledsoe: 653 cases, 630 recoveries and 1 death;
• Davidson: 18,377 cases, 12,994 recoveries and 194 deaths;
• Hamblen: 1,061 cases, 599 recoveries and 10 deaths;
• Knox: 3,337 cases, 1,539 recoveries and 27 deaths;
• Montgomery: 1,482 cases, 585 recoveries and 9 deaths;
• Putnam: 1,458 cases, 1,021 recoveries and 13 deaths;
• Robertson: 1,315 cases, 765 recoveries and 16 deaths;
• Rutherford: 5,579 cases, 2,772 recoveries and 48 deaths;
• Shelby: 19,245 cases, 14,004 recoveries and 269 deaths;
• Sumner: 2,962 cases, 1,417 recoveries and 68 deaths;
• Trousdale: 1,565 cases, 1,473 recoveries and 6 deaths;
• Williamson: 2,896 cases, 1,579 recoveries and 21 deaths; and
• Wilson: 1,902 cases, 1,064 recoveries and 20 deaths.
According to Johns Hopkins University, as of Monday, more than 4.3 million individuals in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19, with 149,260 deaths and more than 1.8 million recoveries.
Globally, more than 16.7 million individuals have tested positive, resulting in 661,012 deaths and more than 9.7 million recoveries, according to Johns Hopkins.
For additional data, go to tn.gov/health.