Tennessee is using federal funds to provide each teacher with four washable cloth masks before the school year begins, while millions more cloth or disposable masks will be distributed to students through their schools.
The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency last week began delivering 298,000 masks to school districts for the state’s 66,000 public school teachers and other school staff.
As for its 1 million school children, the state is gathering information from district leaders whether they prefer to receive four reusable cloth masks or 40 disposable masks per student.
The mass distribution is equipping students and staff with one of the first lines of defense against the coronavirus as schools prepare to reopen their campuses while cases spike. On Monday, Tennessee reported more than 3,300 new cases of the highly contagious virus, a new daily record.
Guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says face coverings should be worn in schools “as feasible” to prevent infected people from spreading the virus.
Still, debate over whether to mask up continues to be politicized, even as Tennessee health officials recommend that all staff and students wear face coverings, except for preschoolers under age 2. Some districts are requiring them, while others are simply encouraging their use. Adding to the confusion, some state and local officials are sending conflicting messages that people should wear a mask — but aren’t required to.
For school leaders caught in the political crossfire and hesitant to issue a mandate, the director of the state’s immunization program has urged using language that mask-wearing is “expected,” not just “encouraged.”
“It doesn’t imply it’s mandatory, but it does imply that it’s the culture of your particular school district,” Dr. Michelle Fiscus told superintendents last week during a conference call about safe reopening practices and how best to communicate with parents.
This week, the Tennessee Education Association and Democrats in the state Senate called separately on local education leaders and Gov. Bill Lee to issue clear mask regulations. But Lee, who has given authority to county mayors to require masks locally, stopped short of that order during his weekly press conference on Tuesday.
“This mask right here is not conservative; it’s not liberal,” said the governor as he held up his own face covering. “It’s a simple personal decision that just might save an elderly person’s life in this state. It just might be the difference in being able to keep a business open in Tennessee.”
Mask distribution to schools is a sign of expectations for districts as the state seeks to keep students in school, parents working, and the economy moving. The distribution is being coordinated through the Tennessee Department of Education, state and local emergency management agencies, and local school leaders.
The supply for teachers comes from 5 million masks secured earlier this year by the state to provide free cloth face coverings to Tennesseans through county public health departments at COVID-19 testing events. At $1.64 each, the total $8.2 million cost was paid for out of the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund.
Student masks will be covered by the same pot of money, and those costs add up. For the state’s largest school system in Memphis, for instance, district officials requested almost 4.7 million disposable masks, said Misty Haley, a manager with Shelby County Emergency Management Agency.
Across the state, Tennessee already has distributed no-touch thermometers for each school — one for every 40 students — and is working to provide sanitizer and other personal protective equipment to school nurses, said Dean Flener, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
The free provisions enable districts to use their share of federal coronavirus relief funds for a myriad of other significant needs like cleaning supplies, sheets of clear plexiglass to divide up common spaces, and additional staff to bolster school nursing and disinfecting. Districts are also making significant investments in new technology to offer online learning options for families who don’t want to send their children back into school buildings.
“For what we need, I think it will take a lot more money. But the masks and any supplies are a huge help,” said Joey Hassell, superintendent of Haywood County Schools, a rural district east of Memphis.
The state plans similar supply private schools with similar coronavirus resources, said Flener, adding that those details are still being worked out.