Leader calls current numbers “alarming”

JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Washington County, TN Schools have tightened their COVID quarantine protocols in hopes of more quickly reversing a surge in positive cases among students and staff.

Director Jerry Boyd delivered the news to Washington County commissioners during an update at Monday night’s commission meeting and called the current case rates in schools “alarming.”

“We have been following a lot of protocols, but what we were doing to try to limit the number of quarantines is, we did not follow the Tennessee Department of Health algorithm or protocols exactly,” Boyd said.

That changed, as did the system’s indoor mask requirement policy, over the weekend. The school board voted Thursday to require masks for faculty, staff and students while indoors or on school buses.

Monday, the administration updated its quarantine protocols.

“With this weekend’s reports of positive cases, we implemented it immediately in addition to a mask requirement indoors,” Boyd said. He added that in light of the recent changes, Monday “was quite an eventful day.”

Washington County Schools director Jerry Boyd listens prior to his report to the Washington County Commission Monday night, Aug. 23.

Boyd’s report followed that of Washington County Health Department Director Chris Hodgin, who told commissioners that 349 out of roughly 1,000 active cases in Washington County were among children.

Hodgin said that 35% share is almost double the 19% of the population that children account for.

Boyd said numbers in the schools had continued to climb. Monday, the system reported 1,066 of its 8,283 students were quarantined or isolated, along with 70 faculty and staff. Positive cases totaled 228 — 193 students and 35 faculty/staff.

“We hope that with the masks and all of those that continue to wear masks, we’ll lower the numbers,” Boyd said.

“We want to continue to try to make sure we can get back to a place where we can talk about instruction and we can talk about student achievement and high-quality instructional programs and learning opportunities for students and less about masks and things.

“But right now that’s the top conversation as it should be because the numbers are alarming.”

Boyd told News Channel 11 Tuesday that the school district formerly would leave quarantine lengths up to student’s families, but are now following Tennessee Department of Health protocols.

“When we were notified of a positive case, we were notifying families to monitor symptoms, and then those families, based on any symptoms or concerns, they would make the decision to quarantine,” Boyd explained. “But now it’s strictly following, which as we contact trace working with the health department, within the zone of six feet of exposure, that’s increased our number of quarantines, of course, already – day one.”

TDH data indicates that of the total COVID-19 positive cases in Northeast Tennessee, cases have risen drastically.

Dr. Randy Wykoff, Dean of ETSU College of Public Health said this is to be expected.

“Older folks are vaccinated. Some of them have had the disease and so are immune,” Wykoff said. “So we are more likely to start seeing a disproportionate number of cases in younger people who have not been vaccinated and who may not have had the disease yet, so that doesn’t surprise me a lot.”

Wykoff said that vaccinations are the number one defense against the coronavirus but that masks help too, especially in schools where kids might be too young to qualify for vaccine eligibility.

In the Washington County Schools System, Boyd said Tuesday that only about 15% of students have opted out of the mask requirement as of yet.

“I know that it’s grown somewhat today, and we even had a call this morning of a parent said that they did submit their opt-out form, and they called this morning to ask, can they retract that and we said of course,” Boyd said.

Wykoff said that masking is extremely important at this stage in the pandemic.

“I would add that while a mask is primarily to protect others, it does help protect you as well. I mean it is a physical barrier that prevents viral particles from getting into your nose and mouth,” Wykoff said.

The school system requires masks for all staff, Boyd added.