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KCS won't report COVID-19 cases or send exposure notifications for upcoming school year

On Monday night, board members discussed whether to add COVID-19 sick days to the existing leave policy. A similar policy expired at the end of last school year.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As students prepare to return to the classroom, the Centers for Disease Control added Knox County to its list of "high" risk communities. The district said it is in communication with the Knox County Health Department about COVID-19.

"At this time, Knox County Schools will not be reporting cases or sending notifications," spokesperson Carly Harrington said. "We do encourage students and staff to stay home if they are sick and to follow the advice of their healthcare provider."

On Monday, the Knox County Board of Education talked about reports and possible new policies during its monthly work session. One of the discussions was whether to re-implement Knox County Schools' COVID-19 isolation leave policy. 

In previous years, the county allowed teachers to take up to 10 days off for an isolation period if they tested positive for COVID-19, per recommendations from the CDC.

Their isolation leave would not impact the teachers' allocated 10 days of sick leave they get per year. That averages to around one sick day per month for teachers.

"I don't know completely how I feel on it. We do have 10 sick days for teachers. They are meant for sickness. Do we then need additional ones?" outgoing board member Virginia Babb said. "With flu and cold, you're not required to have a quarantine."

Susan Horn echoed Babb, urging the board to wait and see how a lack of a COVID-19 isolation leave policy could impact the school system before acting.

"I think it's going to be a sickness that's going to be out there, just like the flu or the cold," she said.

Board member Daniel Watson said that he believed every industry was asking the same questions about COVID-19 — exploring if it could be considered a routine illness like the flu or a cold. He said he wanted to follow recommendations on how to handle COVID-19 cases.

A member of the board said they previously reached out to the Knox County Health Department about how to handle COVID-19 headed into the school year. They said to follow recommendations from the CDC.

"The big difference we have here is that with other illnesses, we don't have an isolation period," said Jennifer Owen, who represents District 2.

Jennifer Hemmelgarn, an education leader, said that last year 1,629 KCS employees took advantage of the isolation leave program. She said they took a total of around 8,750 days for COVID-19 isolation. She also said that utilization rates fell in the second half of the year when the CDC recommended isolating for 5 days instead of 10 days.

The policy also required a doctor's note for people to take the days. She also said a COVID-19 exposure was not enough to qualify for the isolation period. Instead, people would need to have a positive COVID-19 test. Hemmelgarn said that last year, employees could verify at-home tests online to take the days.

She also emphasized that the policy last year covered a maximum of 10 days for a single occurrence of COVID-19.

"I think there are pros and cons for it. I do think at some point we do have to start treating it like a normal illness out in the community," Babb said. "I don't know if this is the year to do that or not."

Watson asked Superintendent Jon Rysewyk if the program could be covered by ESSER funds, which were distributed by the federal government to help communities address the COVID-19 pandemic. Rysewyk said he did not believe any funds were available for it, but also said he would need to research it more.

The board's next meeting is a regular session where they will vote on various resolutions and possible policy changes. It will be on Wednesday, Aug. 3.

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