New Tennessee COVID law leaves school districts in limbo

Local Coronavirus Coverage

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – When Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed the COVID-19 omnibus bill Friday, many school districts became stuck, not knowing how to proceed legally when implementing mitigation measures.

The law limits a school district’s authority to contact trace, quarantine students exposed to the virus and implement mask mandates. Basically, school leaders told News Channel 11 they feel like their hands are tied.

“Prior to last Friday, our nurses were heavily involved and heavily burdened with contact tracing,” said Jerry Boyd, Washington County Schools Superintendent.

“At this point, based on the change they certainly will cooperate when they’re contacted by the Department of Health if that’s the case, but they’re not going to be the lead in contact tracing.”

According to the new law in Tennessee, the sole authority to quarantine anyone lies with the state commissioner of health. The law stipulates that “a local health entity or official, mayor, governmental entity, or school does not have the authority to quarantine a person or private business for purposes of COVID-19.”

When it comes to reporting active COVID-19 cases in his school district, Boyd, along with many other district officials News Channel 11 reached out to, will continue to report those online. However, the COVID-19 dashboards will start to look a bit different.

“With the change in the quarantine, we’ll see how we need to report quarantines, but we definitely will give reports of positive cases and we’ll continue to post those on our public website as we have been doing,” Boyd said.

For Kingsport City Schools, this makes no difference to the current policy. Assistant Superintendent Andy True told News Channel 11 that the district’s protocol pertaining to quarantining exposed students has been to turn to the Sullivan County Regional Health Department to make those decisions and to facilitate that process.

“That has been something, as we’ve gone through the course of this year, that the health department has handled. We obviously stay in communication with them so that they are aware of our situations when it comes to what we’re seeing in schools,” True said.

He said Kingsport City Schools has not been reporting quarantine numbers on its dashboard but will continue to communicate positive COVID-19 cases on the dashboard.

“We think that communication, I think that’s something that we have tried to do to stay in connection with our principals, in connection with our health department, stay in connection with our community as well so that we’re all understanding the scope of what is happening in our schools,” he said.

Johnson County Schools has reported the highest COVID-19 rates in the state.

At the last Johnson County School Board meeting, the board received a somber update from the head of the school nurses, warning against dropping COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

Now, when it comes to the law the board had only anticipated at the time, those strategies are lost.

In terms of mask mandates, the new law sets very specific guidelines. It states that “a school or a governing body of a school shall not require a person to wear a face-covering while on school property unless” certain requirements are met.

Requirements for a school mask mandate per Tennessee law.

At the last school board meeting, Johnson County Schools Superintendent Mischelle Simcox detailed what’s to be done.

“A school can submit a written request to the school board, school principal, there’s a lot of pressure on the principal, to request masks in their school for 14 days. If the county average is a 14-day infection rate of at least 1,000 for 100,000 residents, but that’s a school-by-school basis and it would only be in effect for 14 days, but they have to come in front of you all as a school board and request that. If they do that, it has to be for 12 and over, an N-95 a mask, and for five through 12, it has to have masks with air filtration,” she explained.

In the new guidance released by the state Monday, the only mention of the K-12 setting is that “the close contact definition excludes individuals if both the infected individual and the exposed individual(s) correctly and consistently wore well-fitting masks the entire time.”

Boyd said this could potentially minimize the number of students missing school due to quarantine.

“It went from an approach where we were dealing with possibly groups, large groups of individuals because of the case. We will be dealing individually, based on an individual student’s or employee’s symptoms and act accordingly,” he said.

He also said the number of students testing positive for the virus in his school system has fluctuated throughout the school year.

“It’s up and down. We’ve certainly been blessed with a decrease since late August and September. And it’s held pretty steady after that point as far as the numbers, they have been relatively low,” Boyd said.

The Tennessee Department of Health told News Channel 11 that more specific language has not yet been released when it comes to who has the authority to actually place a student in quarantine.

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