Rutherford County Schools will require masks for everyone inside buildings in the coming year after a unanimous school board vote Tuesday. Yet whether in-person classes will even happen is still undetermined.The district had announced both virtual and in-person options the day before, but spiking cases of the coronavirus caused board members to delay a final vote.
Rutherford County ranks third in Tennessee for active coronavirus cases, with a positivity rate that has jumped in recent weeks. But some on the school board sounded surprised by the infection numbers.
Murfreesboro pediatrician Chris Ingraham, who is also a father of two students in the district, ran the math and painted a potential picture of the first day back:
“We could have well over 200 kids show up asymptomatically to school,” he told the board. “It could go poorly quick.”
He noted that children tend to overcome the coronavirus better than adults, but he implored the board to think of teachers who have asthma or diabetes, as well as the multi-generational households where children live.
The board and the district director decided to wait another week, potentially voting on July 28. Several said that going all-virtual is still possible.
“Do we have new information today that maybe we need to reevaluate … sending our kids back to school at all?” asked board member Tiffany Johnson. “Because now I feel like we’re starting to scramble.”
Schools Director Bill Spurlock said he would “strongly recommend” a move to purely distance learning if the viral spread doesn’t improve, but with the option to reopen later.
Spurlock went back and forth about the threat level, but mostly praised the preparations of the district. He also worried about what students might bring in from the outside, comparing it to fighting a fire in a burning building.
“It’s a lot more difficult to put out the fire once it’s started,” Spurlock said.
More than 4,000 students have signed up for the district’s virtual option since it was announced. The district has more than 47,000 students.
On masks, a district survey of more than 23,000 parents and teachers found that 69.9% support a mandate.
That left “no question” for board member Lisa Moore.
“This is what the majority of them feel like it’s going to take them to feel safe going back to school, especially since the adults are more at risk than the kids are,” she said.
The mask rule will cause the district to revise its dress code and code of conduct to allow face coverings and to guide teachers on how to handle students who defy the rules.
“We are going to have to practice, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to accept students who are openly and willfully not doing what we’re asking and being disrespectful to our educators who are trying to keep them safe,” said Sara Page, a school district attorney.
Rutherford County Schools will also consider specific bullying rules for acts like threatening to infect another student, or harassing a student based on perceived exposure to the coronavirus.
The district has already started buying thousands of masks, as well as 25,000 face shields, which officials say are helpful for early learning, when it helps for mouths to be visible.