Sumner County to Ask for Flexibility in COVID Response

After closing for an entire week due to COVID-19, the Sumner County School Board is poised to vote on a resolution asking Gov. Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly to grant additional flexibility to school districts in dealing with the pandemic.

The move in Sumner County even as parents in districts across the state are suing Lee over his executive order allowing students/parents to opt-out of local mask mandates.

Sumner County does not have a mask mandate in effect in the district. However, they are asking for the ability to move to hybrid or remote learning options should COVID outbreaks create a burden on the system in terms of student/faculty/staff absences.

Here’s more on the proposed resolution from the Hendersonville Standard:

After closing the district’s 49 schools last week due to COVID-19, the Sumner County Board of Education will likely vote on Tuesday to ask state legislators to reinstate some of the flexibility they had during the previous school year with hybrid and remote learning.

Director of Schools Dr. Del Phillips presented a resolution to school board members during a study session on Sept. 7.

The resolution urges the Tennessee General Assembly and the state Board of Education to reinstate some flexibility for local school boards to transition districts to hybrid or remote learning for a short, specified period of time in order to combat any future variants or surges of COVID-19.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, who represents a part of Sumner County in the General Assembly, said he was open to legislative consideration of the resolution. It’s worth noting, though, that Lamberth is also supportive of Lee’s mask opt-out.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) says he’s open to considering the school board’s resolution should it pass next week.

However, he says Gov. Lee and state Republicans have made their preference for in-person learning very clear.

“Our preference is that they do everything they can to keep kids in school,” he said.

Given the current status of the lawsuit against Lee’s order in Shelby County and the advice of medical professionals regarding mitigating the spread of COVID-19, it seems that doing “everything possible” in order to ensure children are in school would include a mask mandate.

Such mandates are in effect in Davidson, Wilson, Rutherford, and Williamson counties in middle Tennessee.

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Lawsuits Stacking Up as Lee’s COVID (Non)Response Makes Matters Worse

Lawsuits from parents in Williamson and Knox counties are challenging Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing opting out of a school district’s mask policy. The suits are similar to a suit from Shelby County parents. In the Shelby County suit, a judge today granted an injunction preventing Lee’s opt-out plan from going forward.

Meghan Mangrum has more on the Williamson County suit in the Tennessean:

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Nashville, names the governor, the Williamson County Board of Education and Franklin Special School District as defendants, alleging that the governor’s order “has failed to allow school districts to afford the reasonable accommodation of implementing a universal masking policy that does not contain a voluntary opt-out.”

In addition, the complaint alleges that the defendants’ actions “have pitted children against children, while placing the health and safety of medically vulnerable children with disabilities in danger” — a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

The Shelby County suit also cites the ADA. The injunction granted today only applies to students in Shelby County.

Meanwhile, parents in Knox County have also filed suit along similar grounds.

WBIR has more:

The mothers of four disabled or medically compromised Knox County students and two Knox County teachers say it’s imperative that the county impose a mask mandate for children and that the governor’s order allowing parents to opt out of such a measure be halted.

The mothers are suing Gov. Bill Lee and the Knox County Board of Education in U.S. District Court. The case is being heard in Greeneville by Senior U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer.

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Judge: Lee’s Action on Masks Interferes with Safe Access to Schools

A federal judge today blocked Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt-out of mask mandates in schools.

WTVC-NewsChannel9 has more:

U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman issued the preliminary injunction after parents of students with health conditions argued that the Republican governor’s executive order endangered their children and hurt their ability to attend in-person classes by allowing others to opt-out of a mask mandate

In the ruling, Lipman wrote that the ability to safely access schools was a guaranteed right and that the executive order impedes this right.

“Plaintiffs offered sufficient evidence at this stage to demonstrate that the Executive Order interferes with Plaintiffs’ ability to safely access their schools,” the judge wrote.

Chalkbeat has additional reporting:

“It is that unmasked presence that creates the danger to these plaintiffs,” she wrote. “Universal masking is a reasonable accommodation that the governor’s executive order refuses to make available to schools, school systems and, in this case, the Shelby County Health Department.”

Friday’s ruling only affects Shelby County, where the executive order was in effect from Aug. 16 to Sept. 3, when it was blocked by the court’s temporary restraining order. Gov. Bill Lee’s order still stands in other counties.

“The public interest certainly recognizes the rights of parents,” she said, “but a universal masking requirement to protect students’ health does not significantly impact their ability to direct their education any more than would a uniform policy or requiring that students receive certain vaccinations before attending school.”

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Teaching Vacancies Up in Shelby County

The number of teaching position vacancies in Shelby County has increased since the start of the school year, reports Chalkbeat:

The Memphis district started the school year with 217 unfilled teaching jobs on Aug. 9, and that number has grown to 227 as of Monday, the district’s human resources chief, Yolanda Martin, said. That represents a dramatic increase in vacancies from around this time last year, when the district had just 63 unfilled positions as of the first day of school.

The rise in openings follows a wave of teacher resignations. Since May, 367 district educators have resigned from their positions, Martin told school board members during a committee meeting on Monday. The district saw a similar figure last year: 389 teachers resigned during the 2019-20 school year.

Normally, I’d write about teacher pay (which is abysmal in TN) or remind readers that COVID-19 has been especially demanding. I might point out the repeated warnings about a teacher shortage. Or, note that all the “disruption” sought by so called “ed reformers” is really disruptive – to kids, teachers, schools, and families.

But, I’m just going to stop. The story is there. Teachers are leaving. The job is incredibly challenging. And there have been people shouting about this crisis coming for years now.

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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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8 is Enough?

The Tennessee Lookout reports on the educators across the state who have died so far this school year from COVID-19. The count at the time of publication was 8, though getting an exact number is difficult because there is no central source keeping track of educator deaths related to the pandemic.

More:

At least eight Tennessee public school employees – three elementary school teachers, one pre-k assistant, a cafeteria worker, a bus driver and two high school teachers – have died since the school year began after contracting COVID-19. The total is an imperfect tally of a grim statistic that no one government agency or private entity is currently monitoring in a systematic way.

The educator deaths come as Gov. Bill Lee continues to attempt to stop mask mandates in local school districts. It’s also noteworthy that a number of districts around the state have closed recently in order to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Here’s how Tennessee Lookout went about determining the numbers so far:

The eight deaths were confirmed through family members, school staff, pastors, media reports and online obituaries. In each instance, the school employees had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the days or weeks prior to their deaths, and in each case there is no definitive answer on where someone contracted the virus. Individual schools cited privacy rules in declining to comment about the causes of death among their staff members.

The story is a grim tale in a year where state policy expressly prevents districts from using remote learning options in order to mitigate COVID spread. Not only has Gov. Lee taken action to attempt to stop mask mandates, but he also visits schools without wearing a mask because, in his words, he’s “vaccinated” and “feels safe.” Of course regardless of vaccination status, it is possible to transmit the COVID-19 virus.

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Rutherford County Adopts Mask Mandate in Schools

Rutherford County became the latest middle Tennessee school district to institute a mask mandate last week, with the measure taking effect on Monday (Sept. 13th). WPLN has more:

Just days after Rutherford County Schools failed to vote on an updated pandemic policy, the school board has adopted a temporary mask mandate. The policy goes into effect on Monday.

More than 10,000 students were quarantined for at least one day last week, as the county continues to exceed its previous winter highs. The county had 4,305 active cases on Friday and reached its one-day peak on Monday with 658 new cases.

Still, not everyone will be wearing masks. Due to Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order, parents will be allowed to exempt their children from mask mandates.

Rutherford joins Wilson, Williamson, and Davidson counties in adopting a mask mandate. While Sumner County was closed all last week due to the pandemic, there is currently no plan to implement a mask mandate there.

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BOLD! REFORM! NOW!

Tennessee’s purveyors of privatization are going apeshit over a newly-released poll showing a majority of Tennesseans (53%) believe the state’s education system is on the wrong track.

Here’s a tweet from Tennesseans for Student Success:

What’s amusing about this “outrage” is that Tennesseans for Student Success is part of a cabal of pro-privatization groups that has been setting the agenda on education in the state for more than a decade.

In other words, if we need bold reform now, we need to move away from the snake oil sold as solutions by these hucksters.

Oh, and here’s some more about Tennesseans for Student Success, just in case you’re not familiar with them:

Groups like Tennesseans for Student Success are joined by other privatization apologists such as Bill Frist’s ed reform group known as SCORE in an ongoing and seemingly never-ending push for BOLD! REFORM! NOW! It’s odd because one might think that with all the bold reform of the last decade, we’d finally have achieved some element of “success.” Instead, we must keep reforming because our students are still “behind” and there’s all this “learning loss.”

Here’s a little reminder from an earlier post about the results of all the “reform” we’ve been getting under the leadership of Governors Bill Haslam and Bill Lee and a GOP supermajority. All of this supported and pushed forward by SCORE, Tennesseans for Student Success, and similar groups.

  1. $616.5 million sounds great, and it’s neat to aggregate data over a decade, but that BIG number averages out to about $62 million per year. That’s about a 2% increase in the BEP salary allocation (not actual money in paychecks) each year. Calm down a little, already.
  2. Did I mention that $616.5 million might sound great? So, the TN House GOP is all excited about spending $616 million plus over TEN years, while the state is sitting on a $3.1 billion surplus this year alone! That means we could spend $616 million in teacher salaries THIS YEAR and still have more than $2.4 billion LEFT to spend. Read that again. Republicans are bragging about taking an entire decade to allocate in total what is available THIS year and could be funded while still leaving $2.4 billion for other priorities.
  3. A bipartisan group of policymakers reports that we need $1.7 billion in a SINGLE year in order to adequately fund the BEP. That’s because the BEP badly underestimates the number of teachers actually needed to staff schools. Of course, the BEP also fails to take into account proper ratios for school nurses or school counselors. The BEP is pretty much broken, and has been for some time.
  4. It was Republican Gov. Bill Haslam who stopped the BEP 2.0 formula that was an attempt to correct and improve the BEP allocation.
  5. Remember that time when Gov. Haslam got all excited about our NAEP scores and promised a big raise to teachers and then cancelled the raise? Remember how after he cancelled the raise, revenue numbers came in at a level that meant the raise really could have been funded? Good times.
  6. Oh, yeah. School districts fund significantly more teachers than the BEP allocates. Yes, this has been a known problem for some time. Yes, the GOP has been running most of state government for over a decade. No, they haven’t done anything to fix it.
  7. There was also that time when the Haslam Department of Education called on the State Board of Education to give local districts flexibility with BEP salary money. Essentially, this created a situation where the 4% BEP salary allocation increase became a 2% (or less) raise.
  8. Remember the time when Gov. Bill Lee gave a big increase in state funding to charter schools and a tiny raise to teachers? Wonder if teachers remember that? I bet that makes them feel really appreciated.
  9. Remember the year when Gov. Lee became the second governor in a row named Bill to promise teachers a big raise and then cancel it when things got tough? Because, yeah, that was 2020. How’d that tough budget Lee was worried about turn out? Oh, right, that’s the one with the $3.1 billion surplus.
  10. Finally, in the recently concluded special session, Gov. Lee proposed and his legislative leadership secured passage of legislation giving teachers a 10 cents on the dollar COVID raise. That’s right, in a year when there’s plenty of cash and teachers are working more and harder than ever, Gov. Lee is placing the value of teachers at 10 cents on the dollar.
  11. Oh, and yes, Tennessee consistently receives a grade of “F” in both school funding and school funding effort from national groups who analyze state level investment in schools.

All of this outcry over a situation caused by the privatizers would be pretty amusing if it was not also rather familiar. You see, these groups thrive in chaos – when they create the chaos, they swoop in quickly with BOLD! REFORM! NOW! solutions and shiny presentations about how if we just did MORE of what they were saying, we’d be getting all the results Tennesseans actually desire.

Another example of this same phenomenon can be found in the Critical Race Theory hysteria:

This is really about creating another issue for political advantage. Lee, SCORE, and others suspect that no one will notice that it’s the state’s GOP leadership pushing down this curriculum – plus, a little dust-up over seahorses takes attention away from the messed up process.

But, the real goal seems to be the re-election of Bill Lee and the undermining of local school boards. Lee signed the bill banning CRT so he can’t also be promoting it, right?

To be clear, Wit and Wisdom may or may not be great curriculum. But, that’s not really the point. The point is, there are larger forces at work – groups from outside the state seeking to stir up trouble for political wins. A governor who is taking both sides of an issue and hoping no one notices.

Oh, and just to make the point even more clear, Lee used “emergency funds” earlier this year (after the legislature adjourned) in order to foist charter schools on districts that don’t have them and are unlikely to authorize them on their own.

To sum it all up, Tennessee has some actual education problems – we could probably do a better job in math and literacy. And, the BOLD! REFORM! NOW! we have YET to try is this: Funding the schools. We’re still $1.7 billion short of adequate funding. We had a $2 billion+ surplus this past budget year. We have the resources to pay for schools at a high level without raising ANY taxes or cutting ANY services. Doing this would almost guarantee relatively low property taxes in most Tennessee counties.

So, tell me again about all the BOLD! REFORM! NOW! we need, Tennesseans for Student Success.

We don’t get the results we claim to want because policymakers aren’t willing to pay for them. If any agenda is failing, it’s the one pushed by the privatizers – they are the status quo in our state. They set the agenda and have for years. If we’re on the wrong track, it’s because groups like SCORE and Tennesseans for Student Success are not only driving the train but also have built the track we’re currently using.

These groups are right – we are on the wrong track – and we should tell them to get out of the way so parents and educators can get us moving in the right direction.

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Wilson County Parents, Doctors Call for Mask Mandate Ahead of School Board Meeting

As the Wilson County School Board prepares to meet tonight and discuss COVID-19 mitigation strategies, a group of parents, doctors, and concerned citizens is calling on the Board to adopt a universal mask mandate. The call for a mandate comes in the wake of a surge of COVID cases in Wilson County and recent school closures in the district as a result of COVID spread.

Wilson County students returned to the classroom after a 10-day break during which time there was no online learning available, interrupting students’ education at the beginning of the year.

Right now, in Wilson County, at least 1 in 5 people tested are infected with COVID.  Over the past 14 days, 579 students have tested positive for COVID, and thousands more have had to quarantine.

“Our children want to be in school,” said Laura Maben, a Wilson County parent and board certified family nurse practitioner.  “My child wants to be with friends.”

Ms. Maben, who also provides health care as an emergency room nurse, continued, “I am asking the Wilson County School Board to  protect the students they are charged to care for!  Otherwise, parents will be left to deal with this pandemic on their own as schools open and close, children are left without virtual learning support, and parents are forced to juggle work schedules or miss work entirely.”

Tennessee has led the nation in daily new positive cases per 100,000, surpassing numbers not even seen during the highest points of the pandemic.

Caroline Cooper Huddleston, also a Wilson County parent of an elementary school student, added, “Around the world, people are looking at us, the Volunteer State, where we pride ourselves on caring for one another, and asking ‘how on earth did this happen?’”

Ms. Huddleston also leads a parent group, Wilson County Parents for Truth.  “In Tennessee, school districts have had to contend with constantly changing and obfuscated guidance from Gov. Bill Lee and the Departments of Health and Education,” she said..  “They have been left to interpret changing signals veiled behind politically motivated statements.  I do not envy the position school districts in our state are in.“However, for the Wilson County school board to use the lack of guidance as an excuse for not strengthening virus mitigation policies is simply unacceptable,”  Ms. Huddleston concluded.

Dr. Amy Gordon Bono, MD, MPH, a primary care physician, said, “All children deserve to be safe in school, no exceptions.  We know how to do this.  As a trained healthcare provider, I, along with 6,300 other colleagues across the state, strongly oppose Governor Lee’s Executive Order 84 allowing parents to opt-out of masking for their students. Scientific evidence demonstrates that masks can decrease the spread of COVID-19. Scientific evidence demonstrates that children can be infected with COVID-19 and that children can spread the infection to adults.

“I strongly urge the Wilson County School Board to put children’s safety and wellbeing first,” continued Dr. Bono.   “If Governor Lee will not step up and lead in this crisis by rescinding his Executive Order, then I am asking the Wilson County School Board to follow the lead of other school districts in Tennessee who have defied the Governor’s order in order to protect the kids they are charged to care for. Will you stand with our children and children’s hosptials like St. Jude and the thousands of health professionals telling you what you need to do to keep all kids safe in school, no exceptions? Or will you continue to stand against us and put children and their families in harms way?”

Ms. Maben added, “I understand and empathize with the desire to ’get back to normal.’ But, our best chance at doing that, particularly with our youngest children who can’t yet be vaccinated, is universal masking to decrease the spread of infection, protect the health and safety of our children and our community, and keep our schools open safely.” 

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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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