Third COVID-19 related death in Rutherford County Schools sparks concern

Coronavirus

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WKRN) — Rutherford County lost its third educator to COVID-19 complications this past weekend. While it’s near impossible to know where each of them contracted the virus, their deaths have stirred up fear for other staff members currently teaching in person.

David Picklesimer, 55, was a teacher at Siegel High School in Murfreesboro and had taught at various schools in the district for decades. He died Sunday, his family confirms, after contracting the virus.

Before him, 53-year-old Susan Keener, a special education teacher at Walter Hill Elementary passed away after a two-month battle with the complications of the virus.

“What’s happening in Rutherford County is a situation where teachers are being asked to take unnecessary risks when there are other models of learning and education that could be followed that would allow them to remain safe,” Rutherford County parent Amy Ragsdale told News 2. “Do I think it’s likely that these three individuals were exposed at school and contracted the virus? Absolutely.”

Ragsdale started advocating for many of her friends who are teachers and staff. She says she’s now become a safe space for many in the district.

“As a parent, I had a choice for my child to distance learn, our teachers don’t have that same choice,” Ragsdale added.

According to Rutherford County Spokesman James Evans, staff who were determined high risk before school started had to go through their supervisors to see if they could be accommodated under the American Disability Act or if they could go on medical leave through FMLA.

If a particular school had enough students choose virtual schooling, then a teacher may have the chance to teach virtually, as well. However, as of December, many parents had put their children back in school and some of those virtual teachers then began “dual” teaching, half online, half in-person.

“One teacher in specific, she teaches in the high school, she told me it’s absolutely impossible to follow through with these protocols of social distancing,” Ragsdale told News 2. “She said that they’re putting students constantly in holding rooms… because there’s not enough staffing. She told me… the cleaning policies in terms of a confirmed case in the classroom has been thrown out the window.”

“School districts and communities across Tennessee and beyond are doing all they can to mitigate and address the pandemic and the effects it is having on our schools, employees, students and parents. These are unprecedented times and there are a variety of views and opinions about how we should handle it,” Evans said in an email statement Monday.

According to the district’s metrics for school closures, the county is currently in the district’s high spread ‘Red Zone’ with more than 2,700 active cases.

As of November 4, the guidelines state a school building must close if one of the following metrics are met:

  • Increasing number of cases in 14-day period
  • Two or more active cases
  • Teacher absenteeism 15 percent or higher
  • Student absenteeism 5 percent or higher
  • Substitute fill rate 10 percent below average
  • Support staff absenteeism impacted

“If those factors are high, we will and have moved individual schools to distance-learning temporarily,” Evans said.

The district has consistently alerted News 2 of closures throughout the pandemic. The district has also started its own COVID-19 online dashboard.

For the week of Nov. 30 – Dec 6, 102 staff and 270 students tested positive for the virus. Thousands more were in quarantine. On Friday, seven of the district’s 49 schools were moved remote. As of Monday, only three of those remained remote.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) President Beth Brown said Monday that deaths like Picklesimer’s are something she hears about nearly every week.

“We can make up for disruptions to learning; we cannot make up for the loss of a student or educator. We’ve reached a point in the pandemic where I am getting a call almost every week informing me that another educator has died from complications of COVID-19. It is heartbreaking and infuriating, because it didn’t have to be this way,” Brown said in a statement.

She added that their data from last month shows “that active case rates of school staff are consistently higher—sometimes double—the rates of the communities those 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.”

From Nov. 30 to Dec. 6, Rutherford County reported 1,664 new cases and 372 of those were in schools.

The TEA, several staff members, and parents say three COVID-related deaths of middle-aged educators is too many.

Ragsdale is asking the district to rethink the way their school plans and metrics for remaining open.

“Our administrators have to come to a point of being humble enough to say, ‘Either we are going to fix things and do things the way we say we’re going to do them… if we’re unable to do that then we have to make changes,” Ragsdale said.

“I entrust my daughter to the care of educators, six and a half, seven hours a day in a typical school year,” she concluded, “They have a huge impact on the lives of our children, and if we aren’t taking care of our educators, we aren’t taking care of our children.”

The TEA is also calling on Governor Bill Lee to step in and make changes for all schools across the state.

COVID-19 in Tennessee

(This reflects what the TDH reports each day. )

Stay with News 2 for continuing coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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