KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Knox County Board of Education has called a special meeting to discuss COVID-19 protocols in schools after nearly 15% of students were reported absent on Thursday, Aug. 26.
Betsy Hobkirk, a part-time art teacher in the district, thinks mitigation efforts in place last year should still be practiced. “It seems like we were [last year] working with students who had some protection, the younger students seemed like they weren’t getting sick from it. Now with the Delta variant, it’s completely shifted and there’s no mask mandate,” she said.
She approached the new school year with optimism; however, three weeks later, she feels it should have started with more caution. “A lot of things put in place last year to help mitigate, to communicate, and be transparent about Covid were dismantled.”
One change she feels was made prematurely was to contact tracing. That’s now being handled by the Knox County Health Department, instead of KCS staff. She believes that’s inefficient. “To expect an entity outside of the schools to know all the subtleties and all the nuances of what happens in a day at a school is really unrealistic.”
That’s why Cecily Fischmann believes her children were exposed to the virus by other children, from different schools where an outbreak occurred. She said the other parents were not made aware of the risk before a birthday party over the weekend. “I’m getting daily text messages saying so and so at this school is home school or I can’t believe it, I just learned through social media, that one of the kids in my child’s classroom is sick and nobody told me. the only way I found out is there are these social media groups taking place,” Fischmann said.
It’s why she wrote a letter to KCS leaders, begging them to implement more preventative measures, particularly for elementary and middle school-age students. everything is starting to just really swell,” she said. “…now we’re three weeks into the school year and there seems to be nothing being done to stop this. that is unacceptable and a complete failure of our school board and our superintendent,” she said.
Hobkirk has seen attendance in some classes cut in half, due to exposure. With no temporary virtual learning option, those students are going without instruction. Parents, like Cecily, are waiting for a negative test to send their students back to class. But for the Fischmanns, there’s much more at stake. “My husband has brain cancer. He’s currently battling brain cancer. he’s immuno-compromised. As luck would have it, he was actually out of town getting an MRI and wasn’t due back to come home until Monday. On his way back, I called him and said you can’t come home, the children have been exposed, you can’t come home.”
She was told by their pediatrician test results could come as late as Monday, because they’re backed up. “I’m hoping for a negative test result. if it’s not negative, then my husband will be in a hotel for another week. we will be out of school for another week. and there hasn’t been any type of support given to us by the school other than you can make up missed work”
KCS School Board Member, Patti Bounds, said Friday the district is following recommendations from the Tennessee Department of Health. She defended the district’s decision not to oversee contact tracing again this year and noted that was the responsibility of the Knox County Health Department prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Many are asking KCS to do more, but we also need to be asking the health department to step it up as well,” she said.