JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Ballad Health officials said they are seeing the Delta variant have a more severe effect on children, as several school systems in the Tri-Cities return to class.

In response to the Delta variant, Johnson City Schools are changing their mask guidance from “optional” to “recommended” following a 4-3 vote at Monday night’s school board meeting.

Ballad Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said the Delta variant has affected children differently than any previous strain of COVID-19.

“In Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, those children’s hospitals are already starting to fill up with very sick children and I don’t think that we can assume that’s not going to happen here,” Swift said.

Currently, there are four children hospitalized at Ballad, including three in ICU beds.

“Delta is going to impact children,” Swift said. “Delta is going to put children in the hospital and potentially some of those children could end up with very critical illness.”

At the school board meeting, public comment centered around a potential mask mandate, with multiple people speaking both for and against.

Sam Pettyjohn warned that going back to school without a mandate could risk lives outside of school.

“Living with a child that attends a school that does not have masking policies in place increases the risk of their family contracting COVID-19. Parents and grandparents whom are unvaccinated will bear the brunt of this by far,” Pettyjohn said.

Derek Tharpe has a student with ADHD and other learning disabilities. He said the past year has presented obstacles for learning improvement.

“All of this past year with masks, with a kid who has learning disabilities, who has difficulties with reading comprehension,” Tharpe said. “The easiest way to teach a child to read is to let them read lips.”

Johnson City Schools Superintendent Dr. Steven Barnett said Tennessee Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton’s comments earlier today that threatened potential legislative force for schools that choose to issue a mask mandate meant a requirement was “off the table.”

Instead, the board voted to change the wording to “recommended,” hoping to create messaging that encourages mask wearing while still respecting parent choice. The word change does not affect how the policy will be enforced.

“We’re not going to take it out of parents hands, but I think it does send a different message when we recommend mask wearing,” school board member Kathy Hall said.

A motion to change the wording to “highly recommended” failed. A policy of “recommended” masks is similar to many instituted by other area school districts.