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Knox County Schools votes against implementing masks amid record-breaking number of cases

The motion to require students to wear masks with an option to opt out failed in a 4-5 vote Wednesday evening.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Leaders met Wednesday night for a special meeting to discuss and implement COVID-19 safety measures.

Since the board's last meeting in early August, some parents have vented frustrations and said the board shrugged its responsibility to keep schools safe. Yet, some board leaders and opponents of COVID-19 restrictions emphasized individual choices on vaccines and masks, saying they were decisions meant to be made by families instead of education and health leaders.

Temporary Universal Masking

A motion to require masks for students, staff and faculty in Knox County Schools failed Wednesday in a 4-5 vote. Board members Betsy Henderson, Patti Bounds, Mike McMillan, Kristi Kristy and Susan Horn voted against it.

The student representative said that more students would have worn masks if a requirement was instituted. Board member Daniel Watson also said after speaking with Dr. Martha Buchanan from the Knox County Health Department, more mask-wearing in school would have decreased the number of COVID-19 cases across the district.

However, Bounds said she believed mask-wearing was physically, emotionally and socially harmful for children.

"School is mandatory but there are other options," she said. "Yes, it is mandatory but keeping students in masks for 8 hours is harmful for children physically, socially and emotionally."

Board members advocating for the requirement said that since students have no choice but to attend school, it was their responsibility to ensure it was a safe environment for everyone. They said schools would be able to keep track of which students opted out of wearing one easily, similarly to how they keep up with other data points about students.

Evetty Satterfield also said that the board had an obligation to guarantee teachers were working in a safe environment after many said they were overwhelmed. She said she was worried that if they did not do that, many teachers could leave their jobs and the school system would not recover from the exodus.

"We lose educators every single year even without COVID," she said. "I’m concerned that we’re not taking care of our teachers. Call it an option, not a mandate but an option — if that’s what our teachers need at this point, I think us as a board has to give that option."

Changes to Attendance Policy for Students

KCS leaders discussed changing the attendance policy to give students in quarantine and isolation a chance to be counted as present in class as long as they complete their work. The changes would allow teachers to upload materials and work for students online, which students in isolation can complete so they would be counted as present in class.

They decided to add it to next week's agenda on Sept. 8, when they said they were confident it would pass. Effectively, they hoped to give teachers a week to prepare asynchronous learning materials for students before it goes into effect.

Since students would participate virtually from home, it could also give leaders more insight into the amount of the student population who were learning in-person and the amount that isn't. There will also be academic support for students learning from home, officials said.

"We didn't think we could do this last week, and all of a sudden the state has changed the rules," said Babb.

However, there were still some concerns about implementing the changes. Owen said that teachers were already stressed and said there could have been a breakdown in communication about what they needed to do this year. The attendance changes could add more responsibilities to their workload, creating online instruction materials for students staying home in isolation.

"Teachers have been told everything is normal, and they are extremely distressed to suddenly be changing everything they were doing," she said.

COVID-19 Isolation Leave Time for Employees

The board also discussed a proposal that would give employees time to stay home if they test positive for COVID-19 and need to isolate. It is called "COVID-19 Isolation Leave" and will let employees stay home for 10 workdays during a two-week period.

They emphasized that teachers would need to provide a positive COVID-19 test to use the time. Board members said that they were working with the Knox County Health Department to get rapid tests for teachers.

They decided to approve it, as long as employees get a positive COVID-19 test.

School-based COVID-19 Dashboard

The board discussed implementing a COVID-19 dashboard that would let parents tell when cases were rising at their students' schools. Leaders said they were worried it could violate FERPA laws and reveal students' private information.

"I’m very torn about this," said Susan Horn. "I want parents to have the information they need, but I’m concerned they’re going to want more information. And what would you do with it?”

They discussed implementing a range threshold system that would report the amount of COVID-19 cases at schools after the number passes a certain point. That way, they hope to protect student identities when COVID-19 cases are low.

They decided to start developing the dashboard. The law department will work with the administration to create it.