Johnson City Schools to allow elementary students to remove masks at desks, other districts keeping requirements until end of school year

Keeping Schools Safe

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Some students in one of the region’s biggest districts will be able to attend class without a mask starting Tuesday.

“We want to allow the removal of masks for elementary students K-4 while they are seated at their desk and only have them put them back on when they’re moving into common areas,” said Dr. Greg Wallace, the system’s supervisor of safety and mental health. “We’ve kept this to K-4 because obviously we keep them…we’re much better able to contact trace by doing this. They stay in cohorts very specifically. The older the students get the harder it is to maintain that.”

The unanimous vote from the board to accept all of the recommendations from Dr. Wallace makes the district one of the first in the region to lift any sort of mask requirement.

“Number five, a cease to use masks at our summer school session pending continued improvement of data toward the transmission of Covid toward Washington County,” added Dr. Wallace.

This comes less than a week after Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee ended all COVID restrictions across the state.

“I kind of believe when it comes to safety…masking kids are a little bit of a facade,” said second-grade mom Misty Meade. “It’s kind of wishful thinking on our part that they’re going to keep it clean and sterile. I know when I pick up my son from school, his mask is soaking wet, it’s covered in dirt, it’s covered in food. It’s pretty gross.”

The recommendations were announced at the same meeting where public comment was filled with mothers asking the district to remove the policy.

“I’m worried. I just want to know what we’re coming into next year because I want to be able to show my kids, yes, we’re in a country of freedom but we are also a country of safety and there’s a balance,” said elementary mom Mary Bracale. “It’s all about balance and I feel like it’s very much out of balance and things are being crossed that shouldn’t be crossed.”

But the superintendent says this plan has been in the works for a while.

“This decision was not due to pressure,” said Dr. Steve Barnett. “We were looking at information, looking at data. We really hoped to make this recommendation earlier in the year but then we had the spike that occurred after spring break so it really delayed this recommendation a little bit longer. I really hope that if things continue, we won’t have to regroup. We’ll have meetings hopefully by [next school year] we’ll be mask-free or mask optional and have a great beginning of a new school year.”

Other districts across the region plan to keep the requirement in place until the end of the school year.

“We have in the last few weeks had an increase in the number of students that either because of potential exposure have been quarantined,” said Jerry Boyd, the superintendent of Washington County Schools. “It seems to be the younger students are being exposed or at least being in a situation where they have to be in quarantine or even positive COVID cases.”

Boyd and the director of Sullivan County Schools will make their recommendations to their boards at their meetings Tuesday night.

“It’s in the best interest of our students to continue wearing masks particularly because no vaccine opportunity is available for anyone under 16 years of age,” said Dr. David Cox, director of Sullivan County Schools. “We hope that through the summer a vaccine will be approved for our children who are ages 11 and up and that’s a possibility, we’re advised, but we’re just not there yet.”

Bristol and Kingsport city schools plan to keep their current protocols in place until the end of the school year.

Please be aware that at this time, after ongoing consultation with the Tennessee Department of Health and the Sullivan County Regional Health Department, Kingsport City Schools will continue to operate utilizing all current operational procedures (such as enhanced disinfecting protocols, mask wearing, and social distancing whenever possible) through the last day of school (5/19/21) as outlined in the Framework for Opening the 2020-21 School Year:  Operations Manual. 

Dr. Andy True, Asst. Superintendent Kingsport City Schools.

Bristol Tennessee City Schools will continue to operate utilizing all current operational procedures, including required use of masks, as outlined in the board-approved 2020-2021 In-person Learning Guide. The Centers for Disease Control and Tennessee Department of Health recommendations still state that universal and correct use of masks, physical distancing, hand washing and respiratory etiquette, cleaning and contact tracing are all critical for schools to use to reduce transmission of COVID.  We appreciate the cooperation of students, parents, staff, and community members in following our safety protocols throughout the school year. We firmly believe these measures have been crucial in keeping students and staff healthy and our schools open for in-person learning.

Rebecca House, Spokesperson Bristol Tennessee City Schools

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