Johnson City Schools will ‘follow the law’ once mask mandates prohibited

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – About 80% of Johnson City Schools’ students are masked at school along with all staff, but that will change if a bill passed during last week’s special legislative session becomes law.

Superintendent Steve Barnett said the law would force school systems to make masks optional unless county 14-day case averages are at what he called a “really high” threshold.

The threshold is based on a 14-day rolling average of new cases per 100,000 residents and was set by lawmakers at 1,000.

In Johnson City, a mask requirement that became effective Aug. 16 includes a parental opt-out, but faculty and staff are required to wear masks. Roughly 80% of the system’s 8,000-plus students have not opted out.

“Essentially, our mask mandate that we have in place would go from being a mandate with an opt-out to being just an optional mask-wearing by students and by staff throughout the district,” Barnett said Tuesday.

Washington County did exceed the law’s threshold for about a month straight starting Aug. 24 but is at just one-fourth of it currently. But the county remains above the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “high transmission” level of 100 for a seven-day rolling average.

The CDC’s recommendation for universal masking in schools remains in place and is in effect statewide in Virginia.

Whether Lee signs the bill or it becomes law without his signature (or a veto), Barnett said the system is ready to “make that transition to follow the law.”

Barnett said slightly more high school and middle school students currently are opted out, noting those are settings where students have had the opportunity to be vaccinated.

Some of the elementary schools have opt-out rates of less than 10%, with others closer to 20%, Barnett said.

The official date for the board to revisit the mandate is in January, but Barnett said with declining cases, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see board members take it up in December.

“Our numbers have gone down in the city and the county and the area around Johnson City, so we’ve been optimistic about that continuing to go down (and) hope that continues,” Barnett said.

“I think that this’ll be signed into law, we’ll be ready for that, to follow the law, and we hope that the numbers continue to stay low.”

Barnett said the system will continue to use other methods to mitigate any further spread of the virus.

If that doesn’t prevent some future climb in cases sufficient to create concern, Barnett said school leaders will simply have to wait and watch numbers rise for a time.

“It could be readdressed but the way that this law is written, the number would have to be really high,” he said.

“We’ll continue to clean, we’ll continue to if necessary do some distancing and work to do whatever we can to keep as many students in school as possible.”

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