The leader of Tennessee’s largest teacher organization is calling on Gov. Bill Lee to take immediate action to protect and support classroom teachers due to the high rate of COVID-19 transmission affecting educators.
Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown urged the governor Monday to set firm guidance on when school buildings should close due to infection rates and ensure that all students and staff wear face coverings for those that remain open.
She also called for emergency state funding to pay for high-quality protective gear, updated air quality systems, hazard duty pay, and extended sick leave for all staff directly involved with students.
The urgent appeal is based on the organization’s ongoing review of local infection data showing that active COVID-19 case rates of school staff are consistently higher — sometimes double — the rates of the communities that their schools serve.
“The data indicate in-person instruction increases infection risk and that Tennessee educators will become ill at a far higher rate than the state’s general population,” Brown wrote the governor.
The state health department on Monday reported record highs for the number of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations among Tennesseans, plus 30 more deaths to bring the state’s total fatality count from the virus to 3,923.
On Tuesday, the governor said his administration plans to stay the course when it comes to schools.
“I’ve said before, nothing’s off the table at any time,” Lee said at his weekly press conference. “But we look at what we believe is working [and] what we’re doing is working with regard to our schools.”
Lee has mostly left decisions about schools to local officials since calling for a statewide school shutdown in March after many districts already had closed campuses because of the coronavirus. While encouraging Tennesseans to wear masks, he has declined to require them and instead authorized mayors to take that action. The governor has consistently pushed for in-person instruction over virtual learning. He recently told reporters he was not considering emergency state funding to help districts navigate the public health emergency.
This month, numerous schools and districts have shifted temporarily to remote learning as local case counts have spiked. On Monday, the director of Nashville schools told parents they should prepare for a return to virtual schooling after Thanksgiving break in the state’s second largest district.
“Just like many of you, I am seeing the daily case counts and becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the direction we are headed with the virus,” said Director Adrienne Battle.
Since September, the state education department has published school- and district-level COVID-19 data on its website to inform parents and school communities about transmission. But the dashboard relies on voluntary reporting, with an average of 82% of districts submitting their information since early September.
Brown complained that the department’s data is inaccurate and called on Lee’s administration either to improve the dashboard or take it down. In previous briefings, the governor has referred to data from the dashboard when asked about his decisions regarding schools.
“It is clear there are significant errors in the dashboard,” Brown said. “Gross underreporting is apparent when the student infection numbers are cross-referenced with concurrent Department of Health cases for school-age children.”
An education department spokeswoman said Tuesday that the dashboard was established to provide useful information while also protecting the privacy of students and staff.
“The COVID-19 district information dashboard displays suppressed data that is self-reported by school districts to count the numbers of new COVID-19 positive cases each week among both students and staff, and uses strict privacy protocols,” said Victoria Robinson.
Brown said the state should require every school district to publish accurate local COVID-19 dashboards for the remainder of the pandemic.
Her organization also called on the governor to:
- Enforce all federal CDC guidelines for school operations;
- Issue guidance to prioritize assigning educators with underlying conditions to remote instruction; and
- Provide additional health benefits and coverage for staff who have been infected.
Below is TEA’s letter to the governor, plus its data about infection spread pulled from six districts that publish timely and accurate infection data.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comments by Gov. Bill Lee.