Vague reopening guidance from Tennessee state leaders challenges local school administrators


WASHINGTON COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Unspecific, delayed guidance from a state level is causing complications as local school leaders try to put together safe in-person reopening plans.

Governor Lee’s office issued some reopening guidelines last week. Lee also urged schools to reopen in-person. But by now, most school districts in the Tri-Cities region have made changes like delaying the start of school and opting for virtual reopenings.

Many school administrators have also voiced support for a return to in-person learning. But some school leaders say they’re still missing specific, state-provided metrics on what the acceptable levels of risk are to do this.

To resume in-person learning, Washington County Director of Schools Dr. William Flanary wants specific data from the state. He noted there are no physicians or epidemiologists on the payroll of the local school system.

“We need people from the state health department to say ‘this is the data you can use. This is the data that says it is safe to put a seven-year-old back in a classroom with other seven-year-olds and a teacher.’ That’s what we’re lacking and that’s what we’re waiting for from the people at the state level,” said Dr. Flanary.

On Wednesday, Flanary told the Washington County Health Education and Welfare Committee that virtual learning was going well so far. But as soon as the state provides clearer metrics on COVID-19 safety, they’ll aim to get students back in classrooms.

“We hear from the Governor and from the Commissioner’s Office that these metrics are forthcoming. We just haven’t seen them yet,” said Flanary.

State departments have released flow charts like this one showing how school districts should make decisions in wake of COVID-19 cases

At Monday’s called meeting for Kingsport City Schools, Superintendent Dr. Jeff Moorhouse said it was still unclear if the state will provide specific metrics. He pointed out the Governor’s plan uses low, moderate, and high categories of coronavirus spread – with no details to establish what low, moderate, and high mean.

Moorhouse said the only metrics currently available were established by the Sullivan County Health Department. School systems within Sullivan County have adapted plans based on green, yellow, and red safety thresholds. These thresholds represent the average case rate of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 Sullivan County residents over a 14-day period.

Sullivan County’s safety thresholds

However, these colored thresholds don’t plainly say when schools have to use remote learning, only when remote learning should be considered.

“And [the Sullivan County Health Department] is really hesitant to change anything right now. Because if they were to change it to something that the state were to choose something different, they don’t want to change it twice,” Moorhouse said.

Moorhouse also mentioned the delay in the state giving any feedback on local reopening plans.

“I want to make this point. It’s that we’ve been working on this since May 18th, asking for guidance and assistance. And it was on July 28th that we got feedback from the Governor’s Office,” he said.

School leaders also addressed the lack of space in facilities to provide six feet of social distance. Flanary said this could only be possible on the school system’s staggered reopening plan.

“Schools aren’t built for social distancing. Schools are built to have a lot of people in a small space working together shoulder to shoulder,” he said.

Moorhouse also spoke on the lack of distancing space in school facilities during Monday’s meeting.

“The stipulation that we have right now is that if we were to come to schools in red, I would have to be able to guarantee six feet spacing for all students and our classrooms. I cannot guarantee six feet spacing currently,” he said.

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