MOUNTAIN CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – When Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed omnibus COVID-19 bill SB 9014 Friday, 94 of Tennessee’s 95 counties did not have the “severe conditions” required to implement a school mask mandate and within hours, area systems that had mandates sent out updates that they’d be dropped.

But Tennessee stretches “from Memphis to Mountain City,” and in Mountain City and the rest of Johnson County those “severe conditions” do exist.

They are defined as a governmental state of emergency (check, through Nov. 19) and “an average rolling 14-day COVID-19 infection rate of at least 1,000 new known infections for every 100,000 residents of the county…”

Though several Tennessee counties approach the community spread threshold that could allow their schools to implement a mask mandate, only Johnson County exceeds it.

Johnson County’s 14-day rate was 1,102 Friday. After the weekend it was 1,113 on Monday.

The night before Lee signed the bill, district school nurse Wendy Henley told school board members and administration of dire numbers. “We’ve had a major problem since the last school board meeting,” Henley said before rattling off a litany of statistics.

But differing opinions over the impact and science of COVID — including how days away from school due to quarantines impacts students’ learning — were on full display at the meeting.

“Ms. Henley, how many students have you had hospitalized with COVID?” school board member Gary Matheson asked district school nurse Wendy Henley during her COVID report to the board.

“Maybe two,” Henley replied.

“That’s a very low number for this population,” Matheson said.

Henley paused for several seconds before replying again.

“Well I know, but we have some parents that’s dead now that ain’t going to get to watch their kids grow up too because they take it home to them, but it’s part of life I guess,” the nurse said.

The pair had already crossed swords earlier after Henley had said she’s worn a mask “since day one” and believed even non-N95 masks, like the disposable surgical mask she was wearing, helped stop COVID transmission.

“Well lady I’ll tell you one thing,” Matheson said. “All you’re going to do is just breathe it through that mask right there. I’ve had too many professional doctors tell me.” 

Let our people go — back to school

Before Henley’s report, two parents — Ashley Worlock and John Kutcher — had expressed their dismay over the amount of time so many Johnson County students were spending away from school. In many cases that’s due to quarantine, not actual COVID infection, as about 80% of students out last Friday were quarantined.

Kutcher said his child had missed 23 out of the past 44 days due to quarantines. He cited articles and studies he said showed transmission in schools was minuscule.

Sick kids shouldn’t be in school, but the healthy kids are the ones that are doing most of the sentence and they’re the ones that really need to be in school,” Kutcher said.

Worlock, who has been substitute teaching, said for families and children that have had COVID already, like hers, quarantine doesn’t make any sense.

“That should have exempted my daughter,” Worlock said. “She should not have missed those days of school.”  

Worlock said she was concerned as kids in classes where she is substituting come back with their confidence drained.

“I know the teachers have done their best and they’ve put stuff online but that still is crushing our kids,” she said. “Not all children learn the same, it’s hard to follow online and then they get so far behind they don’t even want to catch up.” 

Online work isn’t much good for the sizeable portion of Johnson County’s population with no internet access, she added.

We all know there’s still houses with children here who don’t have internet and who don’t have computers,” Worlock said.

About those COVID rates

The threshold set by the new state law is very high — five times the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “high transmission” rate.

When the General Assembly passed the “COVID omnibus” bill in late October, case rates had been dropping for weeks and no county was above that mark. Johnson’s 14-day rate was below 500 the week of the special session that culminated in the bill’s passage.

But for the past couple of weeks Johnson, a rural county of slightly fewer than 18,000 residents, has been at or near the top in statewide case rate. While that rate statewide has been creeping upward, in Johnson County it’s more than doubled from an already high level.

Case rates have risen rapidly in Johnson County.

Henley told board members the spike wasn’t a surprise to her.

“I’ve not been very happy the last month, pretty much,” Henley said during her report. “Had a feeling this was going to happen. It’s fall break and some other things, but this is the highest staff number we’ve ever had.” 

Much of the impact was indeed hitting the schools. The school system’s “COVID-19 dashboard” showed that on Friday there were 51 active cases among students and 182 quarantines, meaning 233, or 11.5% of the system’s 2,033 students, were out of school.

By comparison, the Johnson City Schools dashboard showed 21 active student cases and 19 quarantines — just one-half a percent of enrollment. Greeneville, another system that reports both quarantines and isolations (positive cases), had just 1.6% of its enrollment out on Friday.

The case and quarantine numbers totaled 28% of enrollment at tiny Laurel Elementary and 18% at the much larger Mountain City Elementary, where 79 of 442 students were quarantined or positive.

Johnson County Middle School had 39 out of 291 students out (13.4%) and the high school 62 out of 648 (9.6%).

Staff cases were on the rise as well, Henley said, including several among vaccinated teachers. She said 41 absences from Oct. 8 through Nov. 9 had risen again.

“Up that today to 46,” she said. “Yesterday we had four more and I had a call an hour ago, an hour and a half ago, about three more.”

Unlike many area systems, Johnson County didn’t approve a student mask mandate this school year.

“I think that if we would have had some masks on some of our staff during this they might not have got it,” Henley said. “I’ve had some vaccinated teachers since this month testing positive now and I think it’s because they’ve not wore masks.” 

Henley added that with a low student vaccination rate and many parents seeming more concerned about their students missing sports opportunities than following COVID protocols, the increase was unsurprising — and discouraging.

“I want kids to play ball too, I think they should, but parents send them to school sick, saying ‘don’t go to the nurse,’” Henley said. “A lot of kids are coming to the nurse because they’re so sick they can’t hold their head up. With the COVID.” 

Because they can doesn’t mean they will

Just because the county meets the severe conditions test doesn’t mean Superintendent Mischelle Simcox can simply say, “I declare a mask mandate.” Instead, any system meeting that threshold must follow several specific steps.

Those steps begin with school principals, who would have to request in writing adoption of such a policy. The school board would have to adopt a face covering policy on a school-by-school basis, only for schools that have requested one.

“There’s a lot of pressure on the principal – to request masks in their school for 14 days if the county average is at least a 14-day infection rate of at least 1,000 per residents,” Simcox said.

“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.”

The law also requires that schools provide face coverings for people 12 and older that meet national “N95” air filtration standards, “meaning that the face covering filters at least 95 percent of airborne particles, including droplets containing COVID-19,” the law reads.

Schools would also need to provide similar “age-appropriate” coverings for kids 5 to 12.

While mask requests may or may not be forthcoming from any of Johnson County’s six schools, another change had come by Monday — one Simcox told board members about Thursday.

Chapter 4 of the new law, Tennessee Code Annotated Title 14, takes the authority to determine quarantine away from regional public health experts, schools or local governments and leaves it essentially in one Tennessean’s hands.

“(T)he commissioner of health has the sole authority to determine quarantine guidelines…,” the law reads. It adds 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.”

Simcox told board members she was confident Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey would have guidelines ready by Monday. Monday, she said those guidelines hadn’t dropped and that parents of quarantined students were being notified those students could return.

That prospect got a positive response from school board chairman Howard Carlton Thursday.

“Hopefully effective Monday all of our quarantine kids will be back in school because we agree with you, they need to be taught,” he said.

In addition to the state’s highest case rate, Johnson County’s 7-day test positivity rate of 23.9% was 7% higher than the second-highest rate in Tennessee (Trousdale County’s 16.9%).