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'For the first time in the classroom, I've been scared' | Teachers raise concerns as some districts refuse to release COVID-19 data

Multiple districts across East Tennessee say they will only notify the school community, not the public, when a student or teacher tests positive.

CROSSVILLE, Tenn. — Calvin Kemmer does not go home anymore. 

Since he began teaching in-person classes again at Stone Memorial High School this school year, the 26-year teaching veteran has moved out of his house to avoid the risk of infecting his wife and twin daughters with the coronavirus. 

"I’m like anybody else, I miss my wife and my kids," he said. "Truthfully for the first time in the classroom, I’ve been scared." 

Kemmer is concerned about the lack of disinfectant supplies, the high number of students in his classes and a lack of transparency from the school district about COVID-19 exposure. 

He said when one of his colleagues in Cumberland County Schools tested positive, the district did not notify families because the teacher's desk was more than six feet away from students. 

In a statement, the Cumberland County Director of Schools said, "We are following the protocols recommended by the Tennessee Department of Health and working closely with the Cumberland County Health Department." 

Across East Tennessee, school districts are refusing to release information about COVID-19 cases in their classrooms. The Knox County Schools spokesperson has not responded to recent requests for information. County schools from Blount to Sevier tell 10News they will not notify the public of positive cases in schools, citing privacy concerns. 

Kimmer and other teachers across East Tennessee tell 10News they have not received disinfectant supply kits Governor Bill Lee promised nearly three weeks ago. TEMA said some supplies are in the mail. 

With or without disinfectant kits, Kemmer said there's no way he can clean his classroom with a hundred students filing in and out every day through an environment where class size makes social distancing practically impossible. 

"If we are going to do this, if we are going to do school, we’ve have got to do it right," Kemmer said. 

RELATED: East Tennessee pediatrician gives tips on getting kids back into a sleep schedule

Kemmer's Classroom Concerns

Inside Kemmer's high school social studies classroom sit seven rows of five desks each. At most, he said they're spaced three or four feet apart; he must pack 30 students into his largest class. 

"Until this is under control, the idea of being in a closed room with poor ventilation with 30 plus people just does not seem like the smart thing to do," he said.

He keeps his classroom door and windows open at all times in hopes a rare August breeze will blow through. With temperatures in the 80s, he's also running the air conditioning at full blast to keep students cool. 

He said his district is doing everything it can to keep students and staff safe, supplying masks and gloves for faculty and mandating face coverings for students. But disinfectant supplies remain hard to come by and Kemmer has been forced to use a container of Lysol wipes he hid away when school ended last year. 

"When we opened the doors to students on Wednesday, we had literally none of the things the governor promised our school systems across the state we would have to protect us and to protect our students," Kemmer said. 

In late July, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced every classroom in the state would receive a "full-year classroom disinfecting kit." Kemmer said he has not seen any package yet. 

In an email, a TEMA spokesperson said the kits began shipping last week. They only include a month's supply of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and a set of extra masks. 

Cumberland County, where Kemmer teachers, is scheduled to receive disinfectant kits via Fed-Ex shipments directly to the schools in the coming days, the spokesperson said. 

In a statement, director of schools Ina Maxwell said Cumberland County Schools is committed to protecting students, staff and teachers. 

"While we have still not received the anticipated 'teacher kits' from the State, which we understand will include additional cleaning supplies and PPE for our teachers, extraordinary efforts are being made by our custodial staff during the day to maintain cleanliness in our schools," Maxwell said.

"Further, at night, our custodial staff is using the Electrostatic Disinfectant machines purchased with Cares Act funds, in an additional effort to keep our buildings clean. While we cannot completely eliminate the risks, we will continue doing everything we possibly can to keep our schools safe." 

No public notification

Across the board, East Tennessee school districts have promised to notify staff and families of students exposed to the virus, but their policies on notifying the school community and the public are less transparent. 

Kemmer said when one of his teaching colleagues tested positive for the virus, students in the class were not notified because the teacher's desk was more than six feet away from students' desks. 

The Tennessee Department of Health defines "close contact" exposure to the virus as being within six feet for more than 10 minutes. 

Several school districts said they won't tell 10News about positive cases in the classroom. 

In Blount County, school spokesperson Amanda Vance said the district notified individual school communities of exposure to coronavirus, but would not release information to the media. 

For Morgan, Monroe, and Campbell County Schools, all requests for public information are being sent through local divisions of the state health department which will not confirm clusters outside of long-term care facilities. 

In Knox County, Communications Director Carly Harrington has simply not replied to multiple requests for information about coronavirus in schools.

"We’re told how much we’re valued in the community and I think many teachers feel frankly expendable right now," Kemmer said. "All stakeholders deserve to know what is going on in their buildings and in their communities."