By Jill Penley
To have school, one needs teachers, staff, and students, and with COVID-19 still making its rounds, this has become increasingly difficult. For that reason, the decision to close schools for in-person learning, at least for this week, was made by school administrators and public health officials.
“We are definitely having an unusual year and doing our best to deal with the COVID Pandemic,” said Dr. Mischelle Simcox, Director of Schools. “We are trying our best to keep our students in school. We feel this is necessary to avoid a prolonged shutdown and to keep from going to a total virtual learning platform in the future.”
The announcement came on Friday, stating that “Johnson County Schools will be closed October 5 through October 9 due to COVID and difficulty covering staff members that are currently out. A deep cleaning will be conducted at all schools during the week.”
“This is very similar to when we have to close based on the flu,” said Simcox, who advised there will be no Kid’s Country or Kid’s Carrol and lunches will not be served. Tennessee schools are legally required to follow the guidelines set forth by the TN Department of Health and CDC when it comes to contact tracing and quarantining of students and staff. For example, guidelines state anyone testing positive for COVID-19 must isolate themselves at home for ten days from the onset of their symptoms or ten days from the date their test was done if they never developed symptoms.”
Simcox addressed the quarantine requirements during the Sept 29 called meeting of the board of education. “I know there has been a whole lot of concern and frustration over that 14-days measure,” she said.
Anyone who has been within six feet of someone who has COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more must quarantine themselves at home for 14 days from the last time they were with that person. It is important to note these time periods do not change with a doctor’s note or even with a negative test.
“We have had a lot of calls because of the 14-day quarantine,” said Wendy Henley, School System Nurse Practitioner. “Parents do not understand that it is something we can’t change.”
Some of the ambiguity surrounds the issue that one student is quarantined, while another in the same classroom is not. Henley explained this would involve students who have had COVID-19.
“If you were a case initially, within the three months,” she explained, “you wouldn’t have to quarantine.”
To add another issue to the mix, HIPAA laws prohibit identifying individuals who have tested COVID-19 positive. “If it was a teacher, we look at the six-foot, 15-minute timeframe,” said Henley, “in determining you must be quarantined.”
Local students were initially scheduled to return to class on August 4, after being out of school since March, when state health officials were first faced with the conundrum of how to deal with COVID-19.
Although the county’s daily positive cases remained minimal for several months to follow, local numbers began to surge as the date to open schools approached, causing administrators and the board to question the safety of returning at the scheduled time. The decision was made to delay the start of the school year until August 17 with virtual learning only for the first two weeks, after which time, schools went back to in-person learning for those who chose to do so.
Although 19 percent of Johnson County students chose to remain virtual learners, Henley advises quarantine issues will continue until social distancing can be implemented.
“At 100 percent capacity, we have not been able to meet the six-foot, 15-minute requirement,” said Henley. “I know we needed to start back, but 100 percent has been a disaster, in my opinion, because there’s just no way to social distance.“
“We are also sending some kids home,” reported Henley, “as we were instructed, due to seasonal allergies with those symptoms.”
Henley provided the algorithm utilized to determine whether to send a student home. “I don’t know if they have COVID or not,” he said.
The Board of Education’s COVID-19 dashboard can be accessed at https://www.jocoed.net/Content2/456. Simcox stresses the importance of reporting any positive test results of staff or students during this time to Wendy Henley at 727-2181.
“We appreciate everyone for understanding that the health and welfare of our students and staff are of utmost concern,” said Simcox.