JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As the three Mosby children readied for school last week, their mom, Katy, kept her eye on one number — Washington County’s average new cases per 100,000 population over the past 14 days.
“Between the parents that I’ve been communicating with, we were all checking in daily to decide whether or not the safety … in returning our kids to the school system would be found based on that number,” said Mosby, whose children are in third grade, second grade and kindergarten at South Side Elementary.
Weeks ago, area school systems rolled out information about their reopening prospects that included that data point as a key decision-making metric. A 14-day average of fewer than five cases per 100,000 population put a county in the “green zone” — all systems go for in-person classes.
More than five but fewer than 11 cases was the yellow zone and brought a different set of approaches, while 11-plus — a figure all area counties have been above for several weeks now — merited serious consideration of remote school for everyone.
Johnson City Schools’ Supervisor of Safety and Mental Health Greg Wallace said many school systems used the same data that was available on the Tennessee Department of Health website. News Channel 11 reached out to several of them and learned the metric was important, but just a part of a very complex and evolving whole.
“I still think it’s a useful metric,” Wallace said Wednesday. “I think the issue is that what we have to be certain is people understand it’s not the only metric that we’re using.”
Useful, yes. Easy to find — not so much since about a week ago, when it seemed to disappear from the website.
“I’ve just wondered where it is,” Mosby said. “It was really helpful information to see on a regular basis.”
School officials learned the metric had moved from the website’s “Epi-Curves” section to its “Long Term Care Facility Data” section. Wallace said Johnson City and other systems are still using it as one foundation of an overall approach developed by the Metro Nashville School System with help from Vanderbilt University.
Many systems found the Nashville system a good one as they scrambled to develop parameters for opening back in late June.
“We adapted it of course a little bit to us, and if you look at the regions around us you’ll see little subtle differences so that they’ve tried to fit it to meet their schools’ needs,” Wallace said.
“A lot of these kids go home to families that have vulnerable populations. We also have teachers that are vulnerable, and that’s a huge piece of this.”
Wallace said school leaders know a return to in-person school is best for everyone. But research is still in early stages, and he encourages people to consider their own biases as they study the evidence.
“There are credible people on both sides of the argument, so you have to try to ferret that out and the one thing that I would really caution people is that when you read something that maybe reinforces what you believe in, make sure you read all of the document.”
Even if the case rate stays above the red zone level of 11 per 100,000, the system could make the call to return, with many factors weighed in the balance — including input from regional and state health officials.
“I think it’s just one factor, and one of the reasons for our closure is it wasn’t just the number, it was how the number was going up,” Wallace said.
“We’re trying to gather all the information, look at it, try to make determinations based on the best information we have at this time.”
Other systems taking similar approach
In Sullivan County, all three school systems have collaborated after the Sullivan County Regional Health Department (SCRHD) initially recommended the metric.
In a joint statement, the Kingsport, Bristol and Sullivan County systems said the 14-day new case rate has been their standard “for many weeks.” They said that’s mainly because no universal metric has been identified specifically for schools to utilize regarding operational decision making.
But like Johnson City, the systems are considering many factors. They continue to comb through information from the state, the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association (TSSAA) and CDC guidance. Ultimately, they said, the SCRHD is their primary go-to.
“From the onset, SCRHD officials were clear with districts and we communicated to our stakeholders that the number of cases and case rate alone could not be our sole focus,” the group said.
“Public health officials look at numerous data points when making decisions regarding community risk. This includes local healthcare capacity, case clusters, and availability of personal protective equipment, just to name a few.”
Washington County Superintendent Bill Flanary said the system has recently begun “paying particular attention to the infection rate among people aged 5-18.” He said that database wasn’t available when the board adopted its initial plan.
The Sullivan County school leaders plan to continue walking a line between consistency and adaptation to new approaches as information about COVID-19 continues to emerge.
“As this situation moves forward, metrics that are more applicable to school operations may emerge that provide better decision-making information,” they said. “Any avenue to make better decisions that support our mission and the health and safety of our students and staff is one that we will always pursue.”
Flanary said the daily process can get difficult. For instance, health departments have passed on information about many data points that wasn’t available in the spring, but “their recommendations for social isolation and quarantine periods are shifting.”
So, when does school open?
Wallace said one thing’s for sure — teachers and administrators are pining for a return to the classroom as much as anyone.
“I don’t know that you’d find a teacher that would say they don’t want to see their students and it’s easier for them to do this directly — that’s what they were trained for. We’re trying to look at all of that information, look at our schools, look at types of things that we can provide for our teachers to make sure that they feel safe and protected — trying to roll all of that in to say what’s the best decision for our families.”
A school board retreat Monday will include discussion about several potential options, Wallace said. That could include using a hybrid schedule with “A” and “B” days in which students whose parents had signed up for in-person class would attend two days a week to allow for wide spacing. in classrooms.
Washington County’s Flanary said the system also has a hybrid plan that would cap enrollment in buildings at 25 percent at any one time.
“At that level we feel like we can ensure social distancing in the classrooms, in the common areas and on the buses,” Flanary said, adding that using that protocol will depend on the infection rate and only come after consultation with public health officials.
Kingsport’s Andy True and Wallace both said one factor that system uses in its calculus is the clear advantage to having students in the classroom — one that’s not just academic.
True said his system is maximizing student-teacher contact so issues can be identified and appropriately addressed as soon as possible.
Both men noted that issues of food insecurity, mental health and abuse and neglect often are addressed first and primarily by school systems. True said s school counselors are engaged in trying to help keep that part of the school system’s service to the community as effective as possible even in the virtual environment.
“In the current environment, there are absolutely risks to both being in school and in not physically having students present in-person,” True said. “Weighing both sides of that equation is what makes these decisions difficult.”
He said school employees are trying to customize students’ learning experiences with an eye toward family work schedules, accessibility and the kind of technology that’s available in the home.
We will continue to work with our health professionals and our staff to chart whatever path that will allow us to get students back into our schools as quickly and safely as possible,” True said.