With Blount County averaging about 60 new cases of COVID-19 a day, Alcoa City Schools parents this week asked for increased precautions on campus.

During the Alcoa Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Aug. 10, Valerie Spence noted the increase in case numbers since classes resumed July 21 and said last year the same numbers triggered protocols including masks “that worked so well that even as cases soared in the winter very few people got sick at school.”

While statistics suggest that the risk is low to children, Spence said, they all matter. She noted that even children who don’t become ill must quarantine if they are exposed to someone with the virus.

“To keep schools open, we need to look at the practices that have already worked,” the mother of a third and a fourth grader said. “The CDC, national state and local public health experts, even religious leaders are saying it’s time to mask back up at schools,” Spence said, referring to pastors with the Southern Christian Coalition calling for masks in schools.

“Many Tennessee school systems are already following that advice, Nashville, Memphis, Hancock County, UT, Pellissippi. Governor Lee and Lieutenant Governor McNally, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn all say that the power rests with you,” Spence told the board members, asking them to do everything they can to keep kids safe.

Brooke Givens, the parent of a fifth grader, thanked board members for their response to her email that day asking them to at least strongly encourage masks for students and require them for staff.

In the email she said that she doesn’t believe the schools will be able to maintain in-person learning if they don’t take measures to protect against the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

Givens said she doesn’t care about anyone’s personal politics. “The science is clear that vaccinations, social distancing, good hygiene, and masking help reduce the spread of this illness. Why bother teaching science as a subject in school while the adults around them reject it?” she wrote.

“One of the reasons I am committed to educating my kids in Alcoa City Schools is because they are taught much more than a basic curriculum. They are taught to be respectful, responsible community members and leaders,” she wrote. “What better way to support the community than by doing what we can to keep each other safe and healthy?”

Officials from all three local public school districts told The Daily Times on Wednesday, Aug. 11, they have no plans at this time to change their protocols, under which masks are optional.

Special session?

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said last week that he would call for a special legislative session if school districts mandated masks. On Wednesday, Aug. 11, he sent a letter to the governor calling for a special session to “address misdirected and mandated responses to COVID-19 by local entities and boards.”

A total of 73 lawmakers signed the letter, including Reps. Jerome Moon and Bob Ramsey.

“We believe there is a need to curtail the overreach by independent health boards and officials, confirm a parent’s right to make decisions that impact the mental and physical health of their children, provide support and direction to schools to ensure educators are property compensated for COVID-19 leave, and protect all Tennesseeans from misdirected mandates designed to limit their ability to make their own decisions,” the letter said.

The numbers

Blount County had 104 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in children ages 5-18 in the two weeks ending Aug. 11, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

The seven-day average for all ages in Blount County was 60.3 on Aug. 10, and the number of new cases reported that day was 81. Four COVID-19 deaths have been reported in the county this month through Aug. 10.

Public schools are offering free COVID-19 testing on campus but are not doing all contact tracing for positive cases this year.

Alcoa City Schools has conducted 41 tests and detected 10 positive cases, according to Patty Thomas, director of nursing services and other programs. ACS Director Becky Stone said after the school board meeting Tuesday that five of those cases were staff members.

Thomas said Wednesday, Aug. 11, that a total of 39 students or staff members have been quarantined based on the on-campus testing.

Maryville City Schools has had one positive staff member and three student cases among 45 tests it administered, according to Director Mike Winstead, who said MCS is not tracking the number of quarantined students at the district level this year.

Blount County Schools has had 10 student and three staff cases in 105 tests it administered, according to Amanda Vance, supervisor of elementary instruction and district communications. She did not provide a number of quarantines but said most have been students from close contacts with a case at home.

The Tennessee Department of Health currently has about 30 staff members dedicated to contact tracing on cases in the 15-county region. As of Monday, Aug. 9, the region was averaging about 293 cases per day.

“We are in the process of reassigning additional full-time and hiring more temp staff to assist with the anticipated increase in cases,” Assistant Regional Director Gail Harmon wrote in response to The Daily Times on Wednesday, Aug. 11.

Hospitalized

Blount Memorial Hospital had 30 patients with COVID-19 as of 3 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 11. Seven were in the intensive care unit and two were on ventilators.

BMH has not had a patient younger than 18 hospitalized with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to Jennie Bounds, director of public relations and marketing.

“Predominately, we are seeing that patients requiring hospitalization currently and for the past few weeks have been unvaccinated,” Bounds wrote in response to questions. “We tend to be experiencing what hospitals across the country are also reporting.”

Statewide on Aug. 10 Tennessee had 39 patients younger than 18 hospitalized, 13 in an ICU and six on ventilators.

East Tennessee Children’s Hospital had seven patients with COVID-19 on Aug. 11.

“With an increase in cases in our community and this region, I continue to remind people that it’s not too late to get the vaccine if they haven’t yet,” said Blount Memorial’s chief medical officer, Dr. Harold Naramore. “It is plentiful, and its availability can be found at vaccine.gov. The vaccine is highly effective against the virus and all of its variants in protecting from severe illness, hospitalization or death.”

He noted that getting the vaccine now can help slow the spread of the virus in a few weeks, and he encouraged people who are tested for COVID-19 to stay home until they receive the results.

“We continue to follow our stance of ‘be prepared and not panicked’ at Blount Memorial,” he said.

Thomas said at ACS, “We are encouraging use of masks, encouraging social distancing, encouraging teachers to use seating charts for easy identification of contacts, encouraging hand hygiene, and encouraging the use of personal water bottles. We put our ‘germ busters’ back to work this week and they are spraying/disinfecting classrooms and common spaces every afternoon.”

Education Reporter

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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