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Schools pass employee mask mandate

By Meg Dickens
Staff Writer

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep the nation, Johnson County Schools is taking action to increase safety on its campuses. The first step towards this was a mask mandate for all employees, although officials did not want the verbiage “mandate” used. Employees may remove masks when alone in an office or teaching more than six feet away from students. The new guidelines became active immediately after the Friday, September 9 Board meeting.

The chief reasoning officials gave for the change was keeping in-person learning going. The prior system’s quarantine rules have put schools short on staff but still managing through wise use of available resources. According to Director of Schools Mischelle Simcox, having large numbers of employees out “could shut down a district.” 

As a matter of reference on the amount of staff out, officials rebudgeted $30,000 of ESSER 1 funds for quarantine pay for those exposed on the job, with a maximum of eight paid days. In less than a month, the school system has used 216 days, equaling $13,625. Officials estimate that the remaining $16,000 will not last until Christmas. At the time of the meeting, 17 employees and 148 students were absent because of COVID-19. According to Nutrition Director Kathy McCulloch, her staff switched to a mask mandate after losing an entire kitchen staff two weeks prior.

“I do think [masks] help with symptoms if they would wear it because we’re getting killed,’” Nurse Practitioner and School Nurse Wendy Henley said while explaining the former guidelines. “We’ve tested 513 rapid testing in the month of August. That’s not even counting what we’ve sent to the health department to get a PCR done.”

“We’ve really been struggling the last couple of weeks with the bus driver situation,” Henley added.

As previously reported, Lawyer Chris McCarty passed on information from the Williamson County Chancery Court case Citizens versus Golden, which boils down to saying School Boards cannot issue mask mandates for students. The Board did, however, send opt-in forms to elementary school parents in the district. Teachers can encourage these students to wear masks according to their parents’ wishes. The last known count showed the following opt-in numbers: Doe Valley Elementary, 2; Laurel Elementary, 28; Mountain City Elementary, 72; Roan Creek Elementary, 68.

“As a parent, why aren’t our parents asking our students to wear masks?” Chairman Howard Carlton asked before pointing out the drop in cases in districts that are now masking up.

The Tennessee Department of Health reported that the day after the meeting, September 10, was the highest jump in cases since the pandemic began, coming in at 15,411 new cases. For more information on COVID-19 numbers in Tennessee, visit tdh.gov. See Johnson County Schools’ current COVID-19 count on its COVID Dashboard at jocoed.net. Those interested can listen to this board meeting archive on the Johnson County Schools TN Video YouTube channel.