RUTHERFORD COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) — Dozens of students and staff members in Rutherford County Schools tested positive for COVID-19 during the first week of the new academic year. Newly-formed parent groups said they want to make sure the entire school community has a voice in how the district handles the pandemic.
“I think what makes me emotional and sad is this has become a partisan issue. And it shouldn’t be,” said Lea Maitlen, an RCS parent who helped start the group Rutherford COVID Safety Advocacy. “We are a nonpartisan group, we have people from all walks of life from all political parties.”
The group wants the school district to enact more policies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the community. Another parent group formed last spring that also claims to be non-partisan, supports the district’s current plan, including making masks optional.
“We do not believe that people should be prohibited from wearing masks. That would be, for our purposes, just as bad as forcing people to wear masks,” said Chris Littleton, co-founder of Rutherford Students First. “It’s just a matter of parent choice. We think that’s the right place.”
Littleton said he made the decision to not have his children wear masks to school based on his family.
“That’s not something that I’m concerned about, again, as a parent, but I live in a scenario where my house is not high risk. No one in my family has pre-existing health conditions, we’re pretty young and healthy. And then my children are definitely young and healthy, with no pre-existing health conditions. And we’re not exposed to people that are,” Littleton said. “We absolutely acknowledge that for those who are in higher-risk situations, that could be an extra precaution that they would like to take and is important to them so we support their decision to make that choice.”
A mask requirement is one of the mitigation strategies Maitlen said her group wants to see implemented in addition to social distancing on school campuses.
“It’s really disheartening to see that the district won’t recognize that we need to come together as a community to protect our children,” Maitlen said. “My mask protects you. Your mask protects me. So, my son is busy all day protecting his classmates who are not protecting him.”
Littleton said he felt masks contributed to the drop in test scores seen in Rutherford County, which was reflected in the rest of the state as well. According to the Tennessee Department of Education, 32% of the state’s students had proficient scores for third-grade ELA tests this past spring. In Rutherford County Schools, that number was just under 37%.
“Masks clearly inhibit communication,” said Littleton. “I don’t think anybody would deny that we can see that just talking to our friends, asking people ‘can you say that again? What did you say? I didn’t quite get that.’ Well, imagine that all day between a teacher and students and students back to teachers.”
This year, district leaders said they’ll practice social distancing to the best of their ability and will also encourage good hygiene. However, the RCS quarantine process was one of the points of contention among parents in the district.
“Their contact tracing and quarantine procedures are leaving much to be desired,” said Maitlen. “We have great concerns about the district’s ability to keep our children safe and healthy without a plan. And it doesn’t look like they have a plan.”
According to RCS, people who are identified as a possible contact of a positive case and are showing symptoms will not be able to attend school until they have been cleared of COVID-19. Those who are possible contacts but are not showing symptoms will be strongly encouraged to quarantine but not required. In these cases, the district says the state and local health departments have the sole authority to enforce a quarantine.
“I think the board did the right thing in saying masks are optional up to the parents, and then the quarantine requirements were lifted in comparison to what they were last year,” Littleton said. “You combine a difficulty in learning because communication is difficult with extended absences from school. So that’s the combination that we all lived through last year as parents, and it didn’t work.”
According to the RCS COVID-19 Dashboard’s August 16 update, there were 70 positive COVID-19 cases among students and six positive cases among employees during the first week of the 2021-22 school year. As of last Friday, 32 employees were quarantined but the number of quarantined students was not listed.
“We are concerned with our own children and families contracting the virus, we’re really worried about our teachers,” Maitlen said. “I am personally worried about my child’s teacher, and we’re worried about community spread as well.”
According to the state health department, 43% of people in Rutherford County have at least one dose of the vaccine and there are more than 2,000 active COVID-19 cases as of Monday.
“When we’re talking about the risk of exposure at schools that could result in high acuity, high severity cases that result in hospitalization, we are talking about affected population, a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent,” Littleton said. “Will schools with no mask result in increased hospitalization for the population as a whole? No, because, and I believe this to be true, and I think our organization has absolutely no problem with this. If the vaccine is effective, it’s available to all of those individuals. That’s not a risk factor for them at all. What we’re seeing are individuals who are choosing, in sometimes high-risk groups, to not get the vaccination, which is not the greatest idea.”