KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Parents know best when determining whether their child should return to in-person classes, or pursue virtual learning in the upcoming school year. That’s the message from Tennessee Commissioners of Health and Education.

The two both advocated for reopening schools in the fall, and even highlighted the need to return at the White House Tuesday at a round table event.

We followed up with the two state officials Thursday.

Tennessee Department of Health commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, said Thursday, “reopening schools is a priority for the students, the economy, and overall health of many Tennesseans. It’s our goal to get kids and teachers back in school, so parents can go back to work. Not only does that drive good health outcomes, it also drives good economic outcomes.”

Because some rural counties have significantly fewer cases, Piercey said allow individual districts flexibility in their plans is key. She feels most districts will be able to push forward with their in-person class plans, on schedule, with some special accommodations for larger, metro-area districts.
Piercey also pointed at current research looking at kids catching coronavirus.

“The overwhelming majority of children are asymptomatic, maybe upwards of 50 percent of kids are asymptomatic, or have mild symptoms, like a cold…however, we can’t ignore the fact that children are, or can be, vectors, so they can take the infection home to their parents or grandparents, and certainly there are teachers in school systems that are at risk,” Piercey said.

On the state and local levels, Piercey said, there are plans for several unexpected events. Contact tracing will be used to help contain any school outbreak, though she acknowledged tracking behavior of a five-year-old, versus a 15-year-old, will vary greatly.

“What we don’t want to happen is the inevitable case pop-up in a school and everybody kind of freak out and pull their kids out of school because we have a very staff-wise approach, through the department of education, that targets classrooms, a hallway, or a certain wing of the school, or perhaps the whole building in some cases,” Piercey said.

Tennessee Education Commissioner, Penny Schwinn, said the best approach for reopening schools is for decisions to be made locally, but with state support.

“I do think the majority of our school districts are planning and will continue to open in-person, starting this August and September,” Schwinn said. “I also think it’s going to be necessary to ensure that for every district there is an online or remote option for any family who either can’t or isn’t comfortable sending their child to school.”

Both Commissioners, parents themselves, say the decision is best made by students’ parents, as they know they child best. They also encourage those families who are unsure, to take your questions directly to your local district, consult your doctor, and seek reliable sources of information.

While parents continue to grapple with that decision, Schwinn and Piercey highlighted what a classroom means for a student, and more.

“We’re adults. We have coping mechanisms. We have support systems. We know, by and large, where to turn when we have problems. That’s been stripped away from children,” Piercey said.

Schwinn echoed that thought, “when you think very young children not having opportunities to engage with one another socially. That’s actually a really critical part of child development, so we’re thinking about that. In middle school and high school, it’s very similar. Some of the social development that happens with those critical interactions actually helps to build and someways is as important as the academic instruction that happens in schools.”

Opting for virtual school, offered by a local district or the state, Schwinn explained, will keep a student enrolled in the district, and they will not lose state funding. Homeschooling will continue to be a separate process.

The Department of Education will provide free masks for students and staff in districts that choose to use them. Local districts will also be able to take advantage of state-negotiated rates on technology and disinfection equipment.

The state is also working with districts as they find ways for vulnerable faculty and staff, or those experiencing health issues, to continue employment through alternatives to in-person instruction. One third of Tennessee teachers, she cited, are retirement eligible.