Knox County teacher battles COVID as parents react to no mask mandate

Local News

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A fully vaccinated Knox County Schools teacher is battling COVID-19 just days after school is back in session.

At the same time, the Knox County Board of Education voted against giving Superintendent Bob Thomas the power to implement a mask mandate within the district himself.

Cheri Siler, a math teacher at Central High, is currently at home not teaching because she’s battling COVID-19.

“I got vaccinated in April as soon as I could…my full vaccination in April and I was glad not to have to wear a mask,” Siler said.

Siler said she has no clue how she got the virus. Her symptoms started on Monday, when school was just a half-day. On Wednesday she went to the doctor and tested positive.

“If I got it at school, I got it the week before when it was all staff in the building. Maybe 10% or so were masking, but most of us weren’t,” Siler said.

Siler said because the school district doesn’t have the same COVID-19 protocols in place as last year, she’s doing some of them herself, such as contacting coworkers she might have been close to and trying to find a substitute teacher who can get new classwork going.

“I quarantined multiple times last year because I was contacted traced. I was never sick. But, I always taught from home through a Teams call and I would call into my class and teach from home. Knox County’s not allowing that this year,” Siler said.

She said she feels horrible physically, but all she can think about is what her absence is doing to her students. She learned maybe two-thirds of their names by the time she got sick, and they won’t be able to learn anything new unless she finds a suitable replacement while she’s sick.

Before getting COVID-19 herself, Siler was looking forward to a school year without masks. She said that was one of the annoyances they all had to deal with last year.

“By in large I think students did a good job wearing masks, but, as the year progressed, you know, we were often saying, ‘cover your nose and mouth, cover your nose and mouth, cover your nose and mouth,” Siler said.

Now, because she has the virus, she believes masks should be worn within the school to help stop the spread.

“While we’re in this upswing of COVID cases in our area we need to go back to wearing masks. Um, I don’t think they have to put it in place for the whole school year or, you know, forevermore,” Siler said.

Some parents agree with her. Tammy Humphrey, a parent of two kids in KCS, said the school board’s decision makes it impossible for her to send her youngest son to school.

“My youngest should be at Brickey (McCloud Elementary), but he will be doing homebound for now, because there are no plans in place to protect him from COVID. He has Down syndrome, autism, chronic lung disease, congenital heart defects, and a pacemaker… Virtual school isn’t an option because he is non-verbal and doesn’t know how to use a Chromebook,” Humphrey said.

She said her older son, who attends Halls High, wears a mask but is getting harassed daily because he wears it to protect his younger brother.

Elizabeth Chan, a mother of two at L & N Stem Academy, said she’s happy about the decision to not implement a mandate, but will make sure her kids are not the ones ridiculing others for wearing masks.

“I want to make sure that if they see friends being in that position, being made fun of, you make sure to stand up to help them,” Chan said.

Being from Hong Kong, Chan said freedom of choice is extremely important to her and her family. She said it’s a slippery slope when a government pushes mandates.

“I don’t want to co-parent with the government. We should have the choice to raise our kids the way that we think is best,” Chan said.

She said her eldest did well in school last year academically, but not so much when it came to the masks. She said unlike his younger sister, who was in middle school, he didn’t get as many breaks outside without having to wear the mask.

“For seven hours a day, it wouldn’t, it was not a good thing,” Chan said.

Chan said she’s not worried about her kids getting sick. She said she’s done her research and has plans in place if her kids do fall ill.

“What works for other people, if masking works for them, I completely respect it. And at the same time, I expect the same type of respect for our freedom as well,” Chan said.

Masks are still optional within KCS. Despite Siler already having COVID-19, she said she plans to wear her mask when she’s back on campus.

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