Concerned Rutherford County parents asking state, school board to issue mask mandate

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RUTHERFORD COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) – Rutherford County Schools are temporarily closing one school and several classrooms this week due to staffing shortages related to COVID-19.

News 2 just learned late Wednesday, due to staffing issues — especially those impacting Rutherford County cafeterias and bus routes — all Rutherford County Schools will be closed Friday, Sept. 3.

According to the district spokesman, there are currently 14 bus drivers who are out for a COVID-related reason, who cover 38 bus routes and impact 4,850 students. By Tuesday, 10 of these drivers are scheduled to return. 

In the cafeterias, there are currently 55 employees out, affecting multiple schools. The district says they’re using a stockpile day to cover the closure.

The rise in infections in both staff and students is angering parents, many of whom are now pleading for a mask mandate.

Lea Maitlen, a parent of students at RCS, is part of the leadership team with Safe RCS, a group that is working to keep RCS safe amid this ongoing pandemic.

She says about 1,200 concerned parents are a part of the efforts.

“We have been calling, emailing. We have sustained campaigns where we reach out to our local school board members and to Mr. Spurlock and those concerns, for the most part, when it comes to masks are falling on deaf ears,” Maitlen said.

She was also shocked to hear the central office at RCS has a mask policy, requiring masks when social distancing isn’t an option, but the schools within the system do not.

“Governor Lee has issued an executive order that states all school districts must offer parents an option to opt-out of any mandatory mask requirements,” James Evans, Communications Director at Rutherford County Schools, said. “Our current mask policy adopted by the school permits parents to decide whether to send their children to school in masks. As a school district, we have issued messages to parents strongly encouraging masks because of the high number of positive student cases we have seen the first few weeks of school.”

According to the Rutherford County Schools COVID-19 Data Dashboard, from August 23-27 the total number of positive COVID-19 employee cases reported was 107, and the total number of employee COVID-19 quarantines reported was 306.

As for students reporting for that same week, 1,349 tested positive for the virus and 9,832 students missed school at least one day during the five day school week last week.

Due to the high number of infections, the district is now utilizing the state’s waiver process for remote learning. So far this week, they submitted five requests with three approved, one pending approval and one being denied.

“Blackman Middle School’s seventh grade was approved for remote learning covering Monday and Tuesday of this week; Rockvale Elementary’s grades 3-5 were approved for remote learning Monday through Wednesday of this week, and a class at John Colemon Elementary has been approved for remote learning. Christiana Middle School was closed Monday of this week, but our waiver request was denied. The feedback we received was that one of the biggest factors they consider is staffing issues. We had requested the waiver because more than half of the students at the school were on some type of COVID quarantine. So we instead used an inclement weather day and provided asynchronous instruction. We also have another pending request for another classroom at John Colemon Elementary,” Evans said.

Maitlen says if the state is concerned about learning loss, they should be really concerned about learning interruptions, as Rutherford County students are not getting consistent education right now.

“I recognize this is a really challenging situation and no matter what, you’re going to anger people. I believe we should air on the side of safety and I believe that last year our district had a lot of options in our tool kit to help families learn and to stay safe, and they deserve to have every one of those options right now where the situation is dire,” Maitlen said.

The Rutherford County elected school board has the sole authority to make any changes to the current mask policy. The school board does have a regular meeting scheduled for next week, but as of Wednesday morning they have not added any agenda items concerning the mask policy.

News 2 reached out to the Department of Education and we haven’t heard back.

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