Mask Madness in Knox County

After a federal judge on Friday ruled that Knox County Schools must make masks mandatory, a group of parents began organizing a protest – suggesting they would send their kids to school without masks and then refuse to pick them up. Then, the planned protests escalated to using cars to block entrances to schools. Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs tweeted in favor of resisting the judge’s order. Now, though, the school system has closed for tomorrow as the district prepares to both enforce the judge’s ruling and deal with the protesting parents. The Knox County School Board had previously refused to issue the type of mandatory mask order that is in effect in a number of school districts across the state.

Here’s more on the story in a series of tweets from various players:

https://twitter.com/KnoxvilleHoller/status/1441864236335091716?s=20

Looks like someone missed the Intro. to U.S. Constitution class:

Rep. Gloria Johnson reports on the protest escalating:

The end result: Schools are closed in Knox County tomorrow. Ostensibly, they will reopen Tuesday. However, it is not yet clear how the schools will go about enforcing the mandate and keeping kids safe in light of the escalating rhetoric around protesting the mandate.

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Mask Mandate Mandatory

A federal judge has ordered Knox County Schools to mandate masks with no opt-out in order to protect student safety. The move follows a recent order by a federal judge that Shelby County Schools may enforce a mask mandate with no opt-out in defiance of Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order requiring an opt-out option.

The Knoxville News-Sentinel has more:

Knox County Schools must require all staff and students to wear masks in schools while a lawsuit by families of disabled children plays out, a federal judge ruled Friday. The ruling takes effect immediately. 

U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer also blocked Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing Knox County Schools parents to opt out of the mask mandate. The judge’s ruling only applies to the school district.

The governor’s executive order was already set to expire Oct. 5. Jessica Salonus, a lawyer representing the four families who are suing the Knox County Board of Education and the governor, said that even if Lee extends his opt-out order, it still won’t apply in Knox County.

A similar lawsuit is now pending in Williamson County.

The rulings in Shelby and Knox counties mean that Lee’s opt-out order is essentially a moot point in two of the state’s four largest school districts.

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Knox County’s Thomas Announces Retirement

Knox County Director of Schools Bob Thomas announced last week that he will be retiring at the end of this school year (June 2022).

The Knoxville News-Sentinel has more:

Knox County Schools superintendent Bob Thomas will retire June 30, 2022, he announced to families Friday evening. 

“In discussions with my family over the summer, I made the decision to retire on June 30, 2022,”

Thomas took the helm in April 2017 after a tumultuous time for the district. Before being named superintendent, he had worked as an assistant superintendent since 1990. Before that, he was a teacher at Bearden Junior High and Bearden High School. He also worked at Rule High School as an assistant principal and then principal.

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COVID Crisis in TN Classrooms

As school systems close amid COVID-19 spikes, some districts are also seeing teachers leave the profession.

WBIR in Knoxville has video of a local teacher who is giving up her job due to concerns over the spread of COVID and lack of action by the district to mitigate spread.

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1435369915343687680?s=20

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Students Set to Return to School as COVID Cases Spike

The head of the Knox County Education Association (KCEA) is calling on that district to begin school this semester in a hybrid or virtual model as COVID-19 cases spike in Knox County and across the state.

WBIR has more:

The Knox County Education Association called for the county’s schools to start the semester in the “red zone” with no in-person learning, or with an alternating hybrid schedule where students alternate in-person days, the group’s president said Monday. 

“We can’t sacrifice lives over politics and we need to do what’s right and what’s best for everyone,” Tanya Coats told 10News. “Educating kids is a priority for us, but we just need to do it remotely from home.” 

The push in Knox County to move to remote learning comes at time when new cases of COVID-19 in Tennessee and in Knox County are increasing.

As WBIR notes, since December 11th:

. . . the county’s health department has reported in excess of 10 thousand more positive tests and more than 100 new deaths tied to the virus. The number of active cases has increased by 62 percent. 

In fact, Tennessee achieved “best in the world” status for COVID transmission rate (the highest rate) in December and the entire state is currently identified as a COVID-19 “hot spot” according to Tennessean reporter Bret Kelman:

Some districts have already announced they will open virtually this semester for at least a few days up to a few weeks. With numbers surging and a post-Holiday spike expected, it’s not clear when conditions will be safe for in-person learning.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee has called a “not so special” session of the legislature to address the issue. That meeting will begin on January 19th.

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Kirby Endorsed in Knox School Board Race

In a race for a seat on the Knox County School Board, the Knox County Political Action Committee for Education (K-PACE) has endorsed Hannah Kirby, per a Facebook post.

While Kirby is a staunch supporter of public schools, her two opponents for the seat have both expressed support for school vouchers.

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Voucher Backers Seek Knox School Board Seat

Two supporters of Gov. Bill Lee’s unconstitutional school voucher scheme are seeking seats on the Knox County School Board, CompassKnox reports. Here’s more on the three-person race that includes two voucher supporters:

Rob Gray

Gray supports Gov. Bill Lee’s effort to introduce school vouchers into Tennessee. Lee’s Education Savings Account program, which would only operate in Nashville and Memphis, has been blocked for the moment by a court ruling. Gray said competition for public dollars from private schools would force public schools to be better.

“You’ve got to be innovative,” Gray said. “Competition just makes you develop a better product.”

Betsy Henderson

On vouchers, Henderson said, “I am for school choice. And I think that comes in many forms, whether it’s through vouchers, through charter schools. You know, my family got the choice to live anywhere in Knoxville that we wanted to. And I think that every child should have the choice of where they go to school, or the school that meets their needs.”

It appears Hannah Kirby is the only candidate running who is unequivocally a supporter of public schools.

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COVID’s Impact on School Budgets

It’s being felt in Knox County, as the Knoxville News-Sentinel reports:

Knox County Schools’ budget is expected to be down by $4.4 million for next school year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Around a third of the school district’s budget comes from sales tax revenue, which has dropped significantly because of COVID-19, said Ron McPherson, assistant superintendent and chief financial officer. In total, the district had to cut about $10 million in order to balance the budget, he said.

The projected budget for the 2021 fiscal year is $503.8 million, down from $506.7 million for the 2020 fiscal year, Superintendent Bob Thomas announced last week at a virtual community budget meeting. The school board will vote on the proposed budget on Wednesday.

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Knox County Group Pushes for School Funding

From a Press Release:


This next school year will have huge challenges: many families have had their lives upended, kids will come back to school anxious, even traumatized, and teachers will be stressed. Given the central role
Knox County School staff has played during this pandemic, it’s vital that we fully fund the system to deliver the best possible educational outcomes. Our students deserve nothing less.


In addition, more than 900 additional students are anticipated next year. Additional students require additional resources and staff, and the Knox County Education Coalition has worked with the schools to identify needs that are in excess of the current budget.


After a few weeks of virtual learning, most parents realize the value that Knox County Schools provide. In fact, during the coronavirus crisis, KCS educators and employees have proven to be a vital resource for students and their families by providing meals and emotional support. That support will be needed more than ever in August.


Staff, materials among additional needs


From guidance counselors, social workers and nurses to textbooks and computers KCEC has identified several gaps that should be addressed in the 2020/2021 KCS budget.


Our children’s schools have too few guidance counselors, social workers and nurses. While we are fairly close to the national standard for school nurses, the system is woefully understaffed with regard to social workers and guidance counselors. The system needs to add more than 200 professionals in those areas to reach the national standard.

Our most vulnerable children have been the most affected by the school shutdown. The district works hard to address disparities and has identified the need for additional trainers, special education teachers and school culture staff to close achievement gaps.


The system needs to purchase language arts textbooks aligned with current standards and maintain existing books. Additional funding is required to provide and maintain personal computers for student use, but even the projected needs would not get the district close to one device per student.

These are not our only needs. We need equitable pay to retain our teachers, bus drivers, custodians and support staff.

The Knox County Education Coalition consists of several community organizations dedicated to supporting public education. These organizations include Justice Knox; Knoxville Branch of the NAACP; Knox County Education Association; Kindred Futures; Latino Student Success Coalition; League of Women Voters of Knoxville/Knox County; Stop School Push Out; Students, Parents and Educators Across Knox County and What’s the Big I.D.E.A.?Please follow the coalition on Facebook and Twitter for more information.

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Knox County’s Amy Frogge

Betty Bean has the story of an unlikely two-term winner on the Knox County School Board, Jennifer Owen.

Owen won re-election on Tuesday night by a large margin despite being outspent, reports Bean:


Sure, she had devoted volunteers and steady support from educators, but her opponent, John Meade, co-president of the Central High School Foundation, was rocking big ticket contributions from the top tier of the local GOP donor base and dispatching bales of direct mail to district mailboxes while Owen only sent out two mailers, one of which she paid for with $2,000 borrowed from her husband, Robert. Her only other large contribution was $2,500 from the K-PACE, the Knox County Education Association political action committee.

As Bean continues, she notes that Owen is known for speaking truth to power. She takes principled stands, even if they are sometimes unpopular. She’s not at all afraid to make the establishment uncomfortable. She asks tough questions. She’s unrelenting in her advocacy for public education.

Her story is not unlike that of Nashville’s Amy Frogge, now a two-term school board member. Frogge was outspent by large margins in both of her campaigns, and both times she won big. She challenges city leaders and state policymakers and she’s relentless.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in this for politicians everywhere: Stay true to your principles, fight hard, and do what’s right – even in the face of well-funded, polished interests who claim to be “for the kids.”

Whatever the case, Owen joins Frogge as someone who looks at the powerful interests in her way and nevertheless, persists.

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