(WJHL) – As the Omicron variant has caused COVID-19 cases to surge, school districts in Tennessee and Virginia are preparing to mitigate the spread with fewer tools to do so than in previous surges.
News Channel 11 spoke to leaders of three Tri-Cities districts and asked what they have available to combat Omicron.
In Washington County, Tennessee Schools, 217 student positive cases and 57 staff cases were reported on Wednesday. Johnson City Schools reported 242 student cases and 38 staff cases Wednesday.
Bristol, Virginia Public Schools reported 58 student cases and 10 staff cases as of their last update on Friday.
“We are currently having the largest surge in our school division that we’ve had during the entire pandemic,” said Bristol, Va. Superintendent Dr. Keith Perrigan.
Perrigan said the district is facing a contradiction between existing state law and a new executive order from last week.
Virginia Senate Bill 1303, passed in 2021, requires Virginia schools to maintain in-person learning using all “currently applicable mitigation strategies.” Last week, new Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order banning mask mandates in schools.
That has led to confusion as to which law to follow for districts.
“We’ve receiving no clarifying guidance to help us work through that,” Perrigan said.
Perrigan said the district is holding off on dropping its mask mandate until it receives guidance from the Virginia Department of Health and Department of Education and the state attorney general.
He also worried it could be too early to end the mask mandate.
“We want to do so [drop the mandate] for our students and staff, but we don’t want to do so in a way that causes so many quarantines and isolations that it prevents us from providing in-person instruction,” Perrigan said.
In November, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed the COVID-19 omnibus bill, passed during the General Assembly’s special session on COVID, into law.
The law included a ban on mask mandates in schools unless districts applied for a waiver for a temporary mask mandate in a specific building. Those mandates can only be used if “severe conditions exist,” and they can only last up to 14 days.
“It has reduced the strategies, the number of mitigation strategies we can use, and reduces local choices,” Jerry Boyd, Washington County Tn. Schools superintendent, said. “But we work within the rules that we are given.”
Johnson City Schools said they are re-emphasizing their recommendations to wear a mask and social distance to parents as cases surge.
“All of those tools are still available to parents. The only difference now is that we just can’t mandate it,” said Dr. Greg Wallace, Johnson City Schools supervisor of safety and mental health.
Staffing shortages have forced some schools to consider using a stockpile day, often used for snow and other forms of inclement weather, to give students and staff an extra day to recover.
Kingsport City Schools used one earlier this week to combat illness and short staffing. Boyd said they used some of their stockpile days earlier in the school year, extending the Labor Day weekend.
“We took advantage of the Labor Day weekend to recover and the numbers dropped,” Boyd said.
Boyd said 13 stockpile days are available each school year in Tennessee.