Kingsport pediatricians write letter supporting in-person school reopening

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KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – A group of local pediatricians have written a letter to the Kingsport City School Board, urging the need to reopen school in-person. Eight pediatricians from three different practices in Kingsport signed the letter.

“We believe that the collateral damage from school closures will be much more devastating for children and their families than COVID will ever be,” the letter reads.

One of the pediatricians, Dr. Michelle Estes, spoke at the KCS board meeting on Tuesday. She said studies show children have much lower morbidity, mortality, and transmission rates of COVID-19 than adults.

“In contact tracing studies worldwide, the index case is rarely a child,” said Dr. Estes.

The full letter can be viewed and downloaded below:

Also signing was Dr. Rodney Watson. On Thursday he told News Channel 11 he believes there still can be the option of remote learning, especially if a child has elderly or vulnerable family members at home. But overall – he believes schools need to open.

“The kids are feeling depressed, the kids are feeling scared, and the kids do need to get back. Don’t get the impression that we’re not saying this is not a serious virus, it is. But there are other things that are as serious that can affect your children besides COVID,” said Dr. Watson.

The letter lists several consequences to keeping schools closed.

“School is also paramount as a safety net for food, shelter, and supervision,” it reads.

The letter addressed the widening of the learning gap for children who are struggling or have IEPs. It says child abuse and neglect can also go unnoticed.

“The instance of child abuse reports have gone down 27 percent,” said Dr. Watson. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful.’ No, it’s not. It’s gone down because children are not in school and are not being reported.”

Dr. Watson also pointed to studies showing teachers more often bring the virus into schools, and not children.

“If a teacher has some underlying illness, and feels unsafe being in school, let that teacher be a virtual teacher. There are certainly ways to work at this,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Kingsport Board of Education pushed the start of school to August 10th. But they did not decide on reopening policy, as new state guidance was released right before the meeting. The guidelines from Governor Lee’s office support a return to in-person school.

School Board President Jim Welch said school administrators and health officials are factoring this state guidance into a new plan. No decision has been made yet on virtual versus in-person learning.

“This is obviously not a political decision. It’s a health-driven decision. So having opinions from health professionals obviously carries some weight,” Welch said of the letter.

In determining reopening plans, Welch said the school system needs a singular data source the public can be aware of. The data source would be the system’s decision-making factor.

“Whether it’s green, yellow, or red, and the risk mitigation factors we employ at those levels,” he said. “What we need to do is annunciate better what we are able to do and not able to do at those higher-risk numbers, which is where we are now. Hopefully, we’ll have some better clarity on that. And I’m hopeful that that’s what was included in the information from the state.”

Welch anticipates the new safety plan will be ready by next week. The school board will then have a special-called meeting to discuss it.

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