Tennessee schools are starting to shift back to virtual learning after months of mostly managing small outbreaks of the coronavirus. The state was one of the first to reopen schools, but is now taking the lead in COVID-19 infections.
The state broke its own record for daily case increase on Monday. And Tennessee health leaders have also again called off elective procedures due to the rise in hospitalizations. This has all affected schools as they struggle to stay open for in-person learning.
In Metro Nashville Public Schools, the district is preparing for the likelihood of reverting back to all-virtual schooling after Thanksgiving. The entirety of Maury County Schools made the shift back to virtual learning earlier this week. And Rutherford County has decided to go all-virtual next week. Dozens of individual schools across Middle Tennessee have had to temporarily pause in-person learning in recent weeks.
Williamson County Schools, which has closed buildings because so many staffers are in quarantine, hasn’t made the call to shift back to remote learning. But the district is considering changes to its reopening plan.
“Some of our neighbors have had to do that based on spreads of the virus … in their communities,” says Superintendent Jason Golden. “Those things could still happen.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has been a vocal advocate for the importance of in-person learning, but that option is becoming less of a possibility because of the state’s high case counts.
Since March, Lee has stressed that nothing is off the table when it comes to curbing the spread of COVID-19. But after an initial round of statewide restrictions, he hasn’t made a move beyond encouraging people to wear masks.
He also isn’t following the path of Europe, where leaders are restricting gatherings and the economy to keep classrooms open.
“The spread of this virus is happening not as a result of businesses, but more importantly as a result of small gatherings in people’s homes [and] personal gatherings that people are having,” says Lee. “We know that’s where this is happening.”
Restaurants, salons and gyms have not been major spreaders of the virus in Tennessee. But just this week, the Republican governor in Ohio put a curfew on those businesses. And a day before in Iowa, the Republican governor limited private indoor gatherings to 15 people and issued the state’s first mask mandate.
“We’ve sent out 80,000 packets of PPE to every school classroom to protect teachers and to protect students. And the results have been really good,” says Lee. “We’ve had … 14 weeks of school. We’ve had less than 1% of our schools at any one time be closed, or partially closed, as a result of this.”