MARYVILLE, Tenn. — It was just before 7:30 Monday morning when the line of Blount County Schools buses grumbled into the parking lot of Heritage High School and began dropping off students — some wearing masks, others barefaced — into the fraught new world of in-school education during a pandemic.
At the flagpole in front of the school, two unmasked teens hugged before sitting down in a small group to chat until the bell rang. The scene of students reuniting could have been from any other first day of school in any other year. But over their shoulders, an early August thunderstorm brewed above the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains — an almost-too-perfect metaphor for what many parents and teachers here, and across the country, worry is coming.
Last week, the district began a staggered reopening, making it one of the first in the country to attempt a full return. The goal was to have everyone who wanted to return back in school by Aug. 10. On Tuesday morning, the district changed its plan, opting to allow only half the students to return on alternating days through Aug. 21 with the goal of keeping class sizes smaller while the district eases in to full attendance.
The success or failure of the Blount County school district’s reopening — as well as early attempts by other school districts — will be watched closely by many of the country’s 13,500 other school districts, which will at some point have to navigate these same ominous waters.
Already there have been significant setbacks in districts that have attempted to bring students back. A day after teachers returned to work in Georgia’s Gwinnett County last week, some 260 employees tested positive or had possibly been exposed to the novel coronavirus and were told to stay home. At Corinth High School in Mississippi, in-person classes started last week, and within days five students tested positive for the coronavirus and others went into quarantine as a result of contact tracing, according to a statement by the school district. A photo of a packed Paulding County, Ga., high school hallway with few students wearing masks went viral Tuesday as many people expressed concern about how schools could safely reopen.
For months, administrators, teachers and staff members in this eastern Tennessee district have been preparing for the best way to safely return its 10,542 students to the classroom. The plans evolved as officials responded to information about how the coronavirus spreads as well as pressure from some parents and politicians to open the schools on time. As new cases of the coronavirus increased in the county in July, more parents began wondering whether reopening was a good idea.
Finding a path that works for everyone has not been easy. According to the school district, 75 percent of students are returning for in-school learning, while the remainder have opted to continue with virtual learning.
“Although we rejoice in seeing many of our students back in school, we recognize that reopening comes with levels of concern and anxiety,” the district’s director of schools, Rob Britt, wrote in a letter to parents in late July. “Please be assured that protecting the health and safety of our students and our staff is our top priority, and we will do our best to reduce and slow the infection rate through our daily health practices.”
One of the more contentious issues in Blount County has been whether masks need to be worn all day by students. Some parents have insisted they won’t send their kids back if masks are required all day. Other parents won’t send their kids back unless they are.
While masks are not mandatory in the school’s reopening plan (the district notes that masks are not an enforceable part of the dress code), they are expected in any situation in which social distancing is not possible, such as class changes. The district plan also encourages parents to drive their children to school in private vehicles. Students who ride buses will have to sit one per seat unless they are in the same family.
As for what happens when there’s a case of COVID-19 in a child’s classroom, the district states it will notify parents only when their child has been within six feet for more than 10 minutes with a positive case. In the classroom, the district promises “thoughtful group sizes,” though there’s no clear definition of how many students that is. School district officials declined to be interviewed for this article or to say whether any student or teacher in the district had tested positive for the virus.
Depending on who you talk to here, the Blount County school district’s decision to fully reopen schools this week with in-classroom learning is either a careful and necessary return to traditional teaching or an unwise choice that could endanger many in the wider community.
For Joshua Chambers, a single father of three whose wife passed away two years ago, the return of in-school learning is a huge relief.
“I’m perfectly OK with them going back. Doing virtual was impossible for me,” said Chambers, 46, a machinist who works 50-hour weeks and has children in ninth grade, eighth grade and kindergarten.
Chambers said he thinks the district has put a good plan in place and is taking the necessary precautions to keep children and teachers safe. Like many parents interviewed for this story, he said it has been difficult to find reliable information on the risks involved. His biggest worry is that an outbreak of cases will cause the schools to be shut down again.
“A lot of families in this area, both parents work and they need to be at work,” he said. “If the schools close, it’ll be a logistical nightmare for me, and I don’t know how I could get it done short of hiring a tutor. And that’s sort of out of my price range.”
Jennie Summers has boys in eighth and sixth grade and a daughter in second. She and her husband said that even though it wouldn’t look like a normal school year, it was important for their children to be back in class with other students.
Summers studied the district’s plan and did her own research. Her main objection was to the possibility of masks being required all day in all circumstances. She was a little nervous when the kids left for their first day of school last week, but she said she was reassured after talking with them when they came home.
“We all realize it’s different than what it should be for our kids, but there’s no way to have what we want right now,” Summers said. “Most of the people I talked to had pretty good days and were pleased with what went on. It was nice to even hear the normal first-day-of-school whining from the kids.”
Her son, Joshua Summers, 13, began his first day of eighth grade at a county middle school on Friday. Everyone wore masks, there were signs in the halls reminding students to wash their hands between classes, and the class sizes were smaller, he said. Because everyone had become accustomed to wearing masks, it didn’t seem odd to him to see students wearing them in school.
“It was basically the same as last year. I was a bit nervous, but that’s what usually happens on the first day of school,” Joshua Summers said. “Everyone was just happy to see their friends again.”
All summer long, Cindy Faller has agonized over whether to send her daughter, Ellie, to first grade in Blount County this fall. At first, as lockdowns seemed to be tamping out Tennessee’s spread, she had felt hopeful about Ellie going back. In July, as coronavirus cases throughout Tennessee kept climbing, Faller couldn’t help but feel as though the odds were shifting, and not in the right direction.
Faller used to be a special-education teacher in Knox County, which borders Blount. Having experienced firsthand all the sticky fingers and hugs and body fluids that seem to be part and parcel when dealing with first-graders, Faller just couldn’t imagine how social distancing would work. “I refuse to expose my daughter to this disease at this extent, and I also don’t think it’s possible to keep them safe,” she said.
According to the state of Tennessee, since March, Blount County has had 1,181 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Of those cases, 562 are active. Right now, the county is averaging 41.43 new cases a day, a level deemed “above threshold” by the state.
Elsewhere in the state, cities and counties are all approaching school reopening slightly differently. Knox County has a similar case rate, with 843.78 cases per 100,000. Knox County, however, has decided to push back reopening by five days. Nashville, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus, will begin the 2020 school year with online learning only.
Across the globe, countries such as Finland and South Korea have successfully navigated school reopenings without case spikes, especially in primary schools. Up until late June, South Korea boasted that it didn’t have a single coronavirus case spreading in a classroom.
Not every country has had that same success, though. Israel opened schools in May, but by early June officials had closed 100 of those schools as cases surged all over the country. Officials in Israel said it’s unclear how much spread happened at school vs. in the community, but at one middle and high school more than 100 students and 25 staff members tested positive for the virus.
In a paper published July 29 in the New England Journal of Medicine, the authors argue that reopening primary schools is important and that many countries have successfully opened them without dire repercussions. They note one important difference, however, between what’s happening abroad and here: In every case except Israel, countries had contained the spread to less than one new daily case per 100,000 residents. The United States has 18 new daily cases per 100,000 residents, according to a Washington Post analysis of the data.
Tiffani Russell also researched the plans to return to school, and she and her husband decided they weren’t comfortable sending their seventh- and second-grade children back for in-school learning. The couple both work but have altered their schedules and made arrangements with a neighbor so they can stick with the school’s virtual plan until they feel in-school learning is safer.
One of Russell’s objections was signing a form that said the district was not responsible if her child contracted the coronavirus.
“Everyone has different values and beliefs, but I can’t sign a death waiver for my kids,” Russell said. “Not everyone can do virtual, but they shouldn’t be opening [schools] anyway, because it’s not safe for our children. And you can’t just think about the kids, you have to think about the bus drivers, the workers, the teachers.”
Rebecca Dickenson, a librarian at Eagleton Elementary School and the president of the Blount County Education Association, which represents the district’s teachers, wears a mask and a face shield whenever she’s around students. While that combo gets hot, she says, by far the hardest part of the first few days has been the strict no-hugs policy. “That’s my favorite part of being an elementary school teacher,” she says.
Dickenson is 40 and considers herself low-risk, but she lives with her sister, who has an autoimmune disorder. Every evening, when Dickenson returns home from school, she de-scrubs the way a nurse might, shedding her clothes at the door and beelining for the shower.
“If I really think about it, it’s very worrying. I’m not so much worried about myself getting sick, but if I get sick and I don’t know it, if I spread it, that’s so many people I am in contact with,” she said.
The division in the county reflects the national debate about whether schools should reopen with students back in classrooms. President Donald Trump has repeatedly urged districts to fully reopen, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has threatened to withdraw federal funds from districts that don’t. At the same time, top health officials in the administration, including the White House’s top coronavirus coordinator, Deborah Birx, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have cautioned about reopening in areas where the virus continues to thrive.
Last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, R, announced the state’s plan to reopen schools, saying that “in-person learning is the medically sound, preferred option” and urging districts to make in-classroom learning available to students.
But on Monday, the Tennessee Education Association responded on behalf of the state’s teachers to call for a pause on reopening across the state because of increasing rates of new coronavirus infections.
“Educators want to get back to in-person instruction,” said TEA President Beth Brown in a statement. “However, it is prudent and not contrary to Tennessee law to delay reopening school buildings for the next several weeks, when hopefully the data shows new infections have slowed.”
For now, though, the Blount County school district is moving forward with its plan to get students back in classrooms.
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The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss contributed to this report. A.C. Shilton is a freelance journalist based in Fentress County, Tenn. Joe Heim reported from Washington.