JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – When her board members asked Johnson County School Superintendent Mischelle Simcox Nov. 11 about whether the COVID-battered system wouldn’t be authorized to quarantine students if Tennessee’s health commissioner didn’t offer guidance on a new law, Simcox was reassuring.

The questions came one day before the law giving Tennessee Commissioner of Health Dr. Lisa Piercey “sole authority to determine quarantine guidelines…”

In the middle of a COVID surge, Johnson County had more than 180 students in quarantine at the time. Simcox said that once Gov. Bill Lee signed the law, “we have to have the quarantine guidelines come from the commissioner of health.”

Simcox said lawyers for the state school boards association and the organization representing superintendents had both interpreted the law to require an end to quarantining until those guidelines were shared with school systems and local health departments. Even currently quarantined students would be free to come back to school.

“If the commissioner of health fails to do anything for the next month, we’re still going to stop quarantining?” board member Kevin Long asked.

New COVID cases among Northeast Tennessee kids are about double their level of a month ago and have continued climbing since Gov. Bill Lee signed a law limiting schools’ power to quarantine or isolate students.

“We have to,” Simcox said. But she said the lawyers for TSBA and TOSS, the school board and superintendents’ organizations, didn’t think school systems would have to wait long.

“They both said the commissioner of health surely has worked on guidelines to get out once this bill is signed because this impacts every school system,” Simcox said.

Three weeks have passed since that meeting, but school systems and local health departments have received no updated guidance from Piercey or the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH).

TDH’s Bill Christian said that’s partly because the new law required that Piercey’s guidance be promulgated under Tennessee’s Administrative Procedures Act.

“That is a multi-step process that is underway,” Christian wrote in response to an email from News Channel 11 asking whether guidance had been completed or when it might be.

“Once a draft is finalized for consideration, it will be noticed per state’s sunshine laws,” Christian wrote.

The waiting is the hardest part

Before the law’s passage, schools and health departments in Northeast Tennessee had taken some different approaches to quarantining students who’d been exposed to a case at school and to the isolation of positive cases. But those had been differences based on how much involvement school systems took depending on how many school nurses they had, administrative capacity and similar factors.

What hadn’t been in question was the ability to essentially tell parents to either quarantine their students in the case of exposure or to isolate them in the case of a positive test result.

Sullivan County Regional Health Department Director Gary Mayes said his department has continued to work hand in glove with the county’s three school systems since Nov. 12 — but that the law has shaken things up.

“Even though the new legislation has come about, yes there is language about authority and mandates, but that hasn’t changed the functionality between us and the schools,” Mayes told News Channel 11 Thursday.

The department still informs school systems about case trends and rates, he said. Schools are continuing to do everything they’re authorized to do as they try to keep students safe.

But the lack of a new rule has changed the approach to quarantining.

“Yes, the guidelines have been softened in terms of ‘recommend’ instead of ‘must,’ or ‘request’ instead of ‘shall,'” Mayes said. “Those kind of word changes. We are waiting on guidelines from Nashville, Tennessee that will give us better delineation on the new legislation.”

The health department continues to contact trace and inform parents when there’s been a positive case or exposure, he said.

But when it comes to students who’ve been exposed or even those who are positive, there’s a much greater possibility of them being at school while local entities await new guidance.

“Yes. It is feasible I guess in the absence of these guidelines, you could have some outliers and students come to school,” Mayes said. “But, that should be addressed by school legal counsel and their policy development group.”

He said figuring out how to follow the guidance has been confusing and frustrating throughout the pandemic. The new law has simply added another layer of confusion, especially until Piercey’s office releases new rules.

That’s evident in the different approaches schools are taking.

While many have abandoned quarantining to be sure not to violate the new law, Washington County Schools have continued to list quarantined students on their COVID dashboard. That dashboard showed 80 students and 17 staff quarantined Wednesday, along with 58 students isolated for positive cases and 18 staff.

Johnson City’s and Johnson County’s dashboard both eliminated their quarantine data following the law change. Johnson County’s dashboard showed 20 active student cases Thursday and four active staff cases.

Johnson City’s showed 34 positive student cases and 8 among faculty.

Concern as case rates rise again

When Lee signed the law, case rates had been rising from late October lows — and rates were significantly higher in Northeast Tennessee than state averages. That trend has only exacerbated since then.

Northeast Tennessee’s rolling seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 population had risen 33% since Nov. 1, from 145 to 193. It was 62% higher than Tennessee’s statewide rate of 119.

Since Nov. 12, Northeast Tennessee’s rate has shot up a further 53%, reaching 295 on Thursday. The statewide rate has grown by just 18% during the same period and is at 141.

So the gap between the region and state rates has increased from 62% on Nov. 12 to 109% Thursday.

Northeast Tennessee’s new COVID case rate has shot up over the past month and the gap between it and the state’s overall rate has widened.

Cases among kids 5 to 18 have also risen sharply. The weekly total for Northeast Tennessee’s seven counties was 133 on Oct. 28.

It had risen to 182 on Nov. 12, and Thursday there had been 260 new cases in the previous week — roughly double the figure in late October and 43% higher than the day Lee signed the new law.

That data has Mayes’s attention.

“With our cases trending up in the last few days, we are concerned about that,” he said. “We have enough experience over the last few months to see those are early signs of a trend. That is something you don’t want to see happen in your region.”

For now, he said, the approach to quarantine and isolation is in a limbo state.

“With the court systems and the policy changes and the mixed messages, it is very confusing for a lot of school systems.”