There are increasing signs that the latest surge of coronavirus is at or near its peak. And, if places where the covid surge fueled by delta variant began earlier are any indication, the case-load will begin to shrink fairly quickly once it does reach that peak.
Let’s hope that’s the case in Tennessee, and that we don’t experience another surge of the virus this winter or spring. Because the state’s public schools have been slammed by covid early in this school year, and leaders aren’t doing much to help ease their pain.
Dr. Penny Schwinn, the state’s Commissioner of Education, has reaffirmed her stance that school districts cannot pivot to virtual education as a means of helping to combat coronavirus outbreaks. That’s according to a report from the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Sunday.
What Schwinn has done, in an effort to show compromise as pressure has mounted from school administrators at the local level, is offer case-by-case waivers for individual schools that need to close due to covid.
But those requests for waivers are hardly being rubber-stamped. The process for approval is rather stringent, and early returns indicate that nearly half are being rejected. A week after the waiver process was announced by the Dept. of Education, Chalkbeat reported that Schwinn had grained only eight of 14 waiver requests from local school administrators.
Meanwhile, isolations and quarantines dictated by covid cases are piling up in Tennessee’s schools. For the last week in August, 38% of all new covid cases in Tennessee were among school-aged children, Nashville’s News Channel 5 reported. In Scott County, 25% of all covid cases last week were in school-aged children — a percentage that remains high, even though it has dropped from its peak of 50%. The Times Free Press also reported that 25% of covid cases in Hamilton County last week were in school-aged children.
At Scott High School, the number of isolated or quarantined students topped 100 last week, according to Principal Melissa Rector. That’s about 13% of the school’s student body.
Covid generally isn’t much of a threat to students. For the vast majority of youngsters, a bout with covid is no more serious than the flu or strep, illnesses that commonly make the rounds in school.
But flu and strep doesn’t require contact tracing and quarantines for exposure, which means they effect far less of the student body than covid is impacting. And while flu or strep often means that students who are infected must miss a day or two of school, a covid diagnosis requires students to be out of school for up to 10 days.
That is creating a burden for teachers who are essentially having to prepare two lessons — one for their students who are in class, and one for their students who are stuck at home due to illness or exposure to illness.
More important, at least in terms of covid’s disruption in the classroom, is the lack of available substitute teachers. It’s a big issue in both local school systems, and in most rural school systems in Tennessee. In the absence of trained and certified subs, classes are being doubled up — which hardly creates an atmosphere conducive for learning — or covered by teaching assistants.
The extra burden is causing some educators, a field where there’s already a shortage, to leave public schools — and that includes here in Scott County.
Last year, school systems spent millions of dollars in taxpayer money and devoted countless hours of training so that they could teach students remotely. Throughout the 2020-2021 school year, the virtual learning setups worked admirably, if not perfectly. The effort helped ensure that learning was not disrupted by the pandemic.
In their battle with metro school districts like Memphis, state leaders this year removed that tool from school systems’ toolbox. No longer is a pivot to remote learning an option. If schools must close — either to stem the spread of illness or because there aren’t enough subs to cover teacher absences — they are required to use their stockpile of inclement weather days. Locally, schools have 13 such days, which are accumulated because students and staff report earlier and stay later than is otherwise required by state law, extending each school day by about a half-hour. Scott County has already used two of its days, due to excessive rainfall that created flooding concerns during the impact of Hurricane Ida.
The fear, shared by school system administrators across the state, is that those days will run out before the school year is finished. If that happens, spring break will have to be eliminated, or there would have to be other options considered — such as extending the school year into the summer or implementing Saturday school.
It’s a concern that grows as the list of schools being forced to close grows. Last week, at least 18 Tennessee school systems closed because of illness, according to a list maintained by The Tennessean.
Considering that educators spent so much time and money to be able to teach students remotely, it seems an incredibly stubborn move for Gov. Bill Lee and his administration to potentially force students to give up spring break or part of summer break rather than simply allowing schools to move to virtual learning when necessary.
And not to be lost in the conversation is the fact that this is a classic cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face maneuver at the state level. Because they were angered that Memphis schools remained on a remote learning schedule for most of the 2020-2021 school year, state leaders implemented their rule change. The end result is that when schools must close from covid, students are simply sent home to play video games rather than continue learning remotely. In other words, learning ceases completely. That’s unfortunate. It’s indisputable that students need to be in the classroom when possible. It’s also indisputable that remote education is better than no education at all, even if only for a few days.
It’s also disappointing that lawmakers like our own Rep. Kelly Keisling and Sen. Ken Yager have remained silent on this issue rather than joining school administrators across the state who — regardless of their personal political leanings — are united in their belief that the Lee administration should provide more flexibility to the local level.