‘It’s very challenging’: School board members in Tennessee face mounting pressure during pandemic


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Pressure is mounting for the roughly 1,000 school board members in Tennessee as they weigh whether or not to institute mask mandates. Several Middle Tennessee school boards already made the call as they weather unprecedented times as leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I do think there is more pressure,” said Tennessee School Board Association President Brett Henley. “I think a lot of the community members feel like you can look to your school board members, your director, and they should be able to address any issue with their child. And that’s simply not the case with the COVID pandemic.”

Henley is also serving in his third term as a member of the Coffee County School Board, having had two children of his own educated in the district.

“I just wanted to make a difference,” Henley said. “And, it’s a labor of love. It’s not anything that you’re doing for recognition or for financial gain.”

There are close to a thousand school board members across Tennessee. The TSBA’s board has 18 of those members from Memphis all the way to Bristol.

Now, school board members are often at the center of attention as they serve communities that are divided on how school districts should best handle the pandemic.

“I am seeing that, along with our teachers, our staff, our educators, our administration, everyone, the healthcare system, everyone is maxed out, they’re stressed at their highest level of trying to keep things in motion in a way that they should be for the best of the environment that they’ve signed up to do,” Henley said. “I’ve seen that a number of school board members, good school board members that I hate to see, lose their focus. But they have shown that reluctance to continue because it’s challenging. It’s very challenging.”

Videos from school board meetings in Middle Tennessee have gone viral, including in Williamson and Rutherford counties, as tensions run high during debates over face masks.

“If you’re a parent, you have your child and you look at other children, and you want to see the best outcome for each of them and when there are things that are hampering that success, or that you view as a parent, you tend to reach out, and you tend to lash out sometimes at school board members, administration, teachers,” said Henley. “That’s where we’re seeing our teachers getting beyond frustrated. They’re getting the brunt of these parents that are dissatisfied with what they feel is going on. And at the end of the day, our teachers are doing everything possible to set our students up for success to the best of their abilities that they’re having to work within.”

He said some of those complaints have made it to his inbox as well.

“I honestly have probably received more derogatory emails, just for different things, since the pandemic started than the combined eight and a half years I was on the board,” Henley explained. “It comes with the job. You see some challenging circumstances. But again, this particular pandemic has been beyond challenging just because there’s not a blueprint. I’m the type of person that I like to use past successes to forecast future successes and present successes.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, the TSBA has been working to educate other fellow school board members with information from the state and federal levels to help them make decisions in their particular district. Henley said while some school board members are reluctant to continue in what’s become a controversial role, other people are being inspired to run for office.

“A lot of people that I’ve experienced just lately have specifically shown an interest in running for school board. They feel like ‘we could get in there and make a difference’ and I applaud that,” said Henley. “But there are so many obstacles with the pandemic that, as I said, there’s no blueprint to, to be able to use to address the certain things that we do. And a lot of mistakes that we make are really exaggerated and the good things that we seem to do a lot of times don’t get recognized.”

He added that local communities need to rally around each other during these trying times.

“Support your local school boards, support your local officials, give them the confidence and the patience that they deserve to try to let them do the job that they elected them for or that you hired him for and give them the opportunity to do that,” Henley said. “They’re not going to stay in that position if they’re not committed.”

Coffee County had to closed for 10 days last month due to increased COVID-19 cases. It’s an issue many school districts are facing as the delta variant impacts Tennessee and the rest of the country. According to the Tennessee Health Department, 42.88% of people in Coffee County have at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

“It’s extremely frustrating, especially since Tennessee is at a 42.5% vaccination rate,” Henley said. “I’m not sitting here advocating the vaccination to the extent everyone should do it. But the high-risk groups and the people that are involved with areas that could spread it or make the spread wider than what normally would be, those people should seriously consider vaccinations.”

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