Knox County Schools BOE members speak on COVID-19 precautions ahead of special meeting

Local News

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Ahead of the special called meeting for Knox County Schools Board of Education, board members have been inundated with emails from parents about what they want when it comes to COVID-19 safety precautions.

On Wednesday, the board will once again talk about COVID-19 precautions, amid case totals at an all-time high within the school district.

On the special called agenda: a mask mandate that includes the opt-out option from Gov. Bill Lee, an amended attendance policy for students when it comes to staying home for COVID-19, COVID-19 isolation leave for employees and a few different topics on contract tracing within schools.

Daniel Watson, District 3 Board Member, added a few of the items on the agenda, such as the mask mandate and a discussion about contract tracing.

“I think there’s a lot of confusion about how it’s happening in our schools, relative to last year, and I want to have, I want the administration to have the opportunity to speak to that. There may be possible action that comes out of that, but there’s not really a recommendation for action at this point. It’s really a discussion so we can better understand how we’re doing it as opposed to last year,” Watson said.

District 6 Board Member Betsy Henderson added an item for a vote about contract tracing. If passed, individuals schools would have their own COVID-19 case dashboard.

Virginia Babb, the Vice Chair and District 4 board member, also had a mask mandate on the agenda that would only include elementary school children (the age group who can’t be vaccinated yet.)

“We seem to be having more cases. I mean, the Delta variant does seem to be more contagious than the other variants and things like that, and you know, I am hearing from a lot of people concerned, especially at the elementary school level,” Babb said.

She decided to withdraw her motion because Watson had a more universal mandate policy up for a vote.”I just didn’t see there was a real point of us having to debate two different motions about masks.”

Babb said it’s nearly impossible for her to respond to parent emails, because she has so many emails to go through. “It’s gotten overwhelming at this point. I think it’s very obvious the community is very fired up about this.”

She’s not the only one who has an inbox full of emails from parents.

“In our last three weeks, since our last board meeting, I’ve received now over 800 emails. I’ve not been able to respond to them all. I’ve been really good about doing it all throughout the pandemic, but I just can’t keep up,” Daniel Watson, District 3 BOE member.

Watson said before the special meeting was called, his emails were about parents wanting mask mandates. After the meeting was announced, those emails turned into parents not wanting a mask mandate.

Board members are not allowed to talk with each other outside of a board meeting, so both Babb and Watson have no idea how the votes will end up Wednesday night. Watson hopes the votes will err on the side of caution, i.e. public health guidance.

“I think given what we’re seeing with Delta in our community and COVID in our schools, that it’s the appropriate thing to do. I’ve consistently said since the beginning of the pandemic, that I think our schools need to align with public health guidance,” Watson said.

Watson believes that maybe with a high amount of COVID-19 cases in the schools so far this year, some board members might change their minds.

“Really, it was in the spring where you kind of started seeing that split, I think that’s because people felt like we were coming toward the end of the pandemic, and so people started adjusting, right? Their thoughts and approaches to it. But, now we’re seeing another swing in the pandemic, so, who knows. Who knows what happens,” Watson said.

Babb believes most member’s minds are made up, no matter how many people speak during the public forum and no matter how many emails they receive with different links about COVID.

“I’ll be honest, I’m not a doctor. I do look at medical authorities, not postings on Facebook, and not the different links by lots of different emailers. I look at medical authorities I feel like I can trust. But, that’s me personally. Other people on our board look at advice from other people,” Babb said.

She said everyone feels strongly about the way they do, and because of that, she’s not sure if higher COVID cases will change what the majority of board members have already voted, at least regarding mask mandates.

At the end of the day, Babb said no matter what the board decides, the board can’t please everyone.

“Sitting where I sit, no matter what we do, it’s not going to make everyone happy and it’s going to make a lot of people mad. No matter what we do,” Babb said.

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