Gov. Lee recommends in-person classes, outlines contingency plans

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 29, 2020 9:56 AM CT | Published: July 28, 2020 3:38 PM CT

Gov. Bill Lee outlined detailed recommendations by the state Tuesday, July 28, for public school systems to resume in-person classes next month, saying in-person classes are the state’s preference.

The contingency plans for steps to take if students or teachers test positive for the COVID-19 virus or make contact with someone else with the virus comes a day after Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray announced the state’s largest public school system would start the school year Aug. 31 with online or virtual classes for all students, at least to start.

Virtual learning only for Shelby County schools until further notice

Ray said Monday he had come to the conclusion it was “largely a myth” that schools could safely reopen for in-person classes with daily new cases of the virus being reported in Memphis and other places in “triple digits.”

The state’s recommendations and guidelines from Lee and the state departments of health and education still depend on local health officials.

SCS and Metro Nashville Schools are the only two of the state’s 147 public school districts who have said they will open with online classes only, according to state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. But Fayette County public schools also plan to begin Aug. 10 with online-only classes.

Other school systems, including the six suburban school systems in Shelby County, are either opening in person or are giving parents a choice of in-person or online. The choice was the option SCS leaders were working toward when Ray announced online only because of the continued rise in COVID cases locally.

”While districts are given the responsibility about their own districts, our belief along with the national belief is that in-person learning is best for students,” Lee said when asked specifically about the decisions in Memphis and Nashville. “We are hopeful those districts will move toward in-person classes when they believe it is appropriate.”

Asked earlier Tuesday about the possibility of Shelby County Schools being online only at the start of the school year while other school systems in the same county return to in-person classes, Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said that scenario posed some “very interesting challenges.”

“There’s this balance of allowing school districts to be somewhat autonomous and doing what they feel is best for their district and their schools,” she said via Zoom to a question from a group of about 40 members of the Memphis Rotary Club.

“Collierville is not substantially different than inner-city Memphis because those people still travel both ways,” Piercey said. “I think the most important part here … is for parents to have a choice. If they don’t feel comfortable sending their child in person that they have the choice to keep them at home if there is an option for them.”

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But Pearcy said she’s not sure how different plans for school systems within one county will work out practically.

Lee said the state’s decision to recommend in-person classes either now or at some point later in the school year is because of other risks to children not being physically in school.

”I think we’ve outlined the risks with children not being in school. We’ve outlined all of the dangers and all of the negative impacts that that has on kids,” he said. “We weigh our approach to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, which we are aggressively pursuing on a daily basis, with the need to safely put kids back in the classroom. This decision around in-person learning is based on what’s best for kids and that’s how we’ve made the determination to move forward.”

There was early criticism of the state recommendations from Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini, who said Lee is ignoring medical experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“And in his push to reopen, he’s also ignoring the pleas from teachers who are begging for the continuation of remote learning until the spread of the virus is under control,” Mancini said in an emailed statement. “Lee also ignores the number one consideration outlined by the CDC — that schools should only reopen if transmission rates in the community are under control.”

The state’s recommendations rely heavily on the ability to isolate children and teachers quickly who test positive for the virus and quarantine their close contacts. But it does not include regular testing of students or teachers.

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”One of the challenges we face right now in the state, and it’s one in the nation, is testing turnaround time and the speed in which we can get results from testing,” Lee said, adding he talked about that point Monday with Dr. Deborah Birx, the federal government’s coronavirus response coordinator who visited Nashville.

“That weighs into that decision and we will be looking at, and we talked with, Dr. Birx yesterday about testing strategies moving forward,” Lee said. “We think the clear protocols we’ve put in place that will be pushed out to those districts are going to allow for the appropriate steps to take whenever there is a case in a school.”

For now, the state recommendations call for students and teachers or other school employees testing positive for the virus to isolate themselves at home for 10 days from the onset of symptoms or from the date they were tested if they never developed symptoms.

To return to school, those with symptoms must have no fever and must be feeling better for at least a 24-hour period.

The 14-day quarantine period applies to anyone within 6 feet of an infected person for 10 minutes or more. They must quarantine at home for two weeks from the last time they were with that person.

The state guidelines ask parents to assist health officials in contact tracing.

Earlier in the day, Piercey told the Rotary Club audience that younger children are usually not the primary source of transmission.

“There will be cases and I would suspect there are going to be cases in every school,” she said of younger children. “They can spread it but they are usually not the primary source of infection in a household.”

Piercey was also critical of “these big districtwide closures” after a virus case at a school, calling them “almost always un-necessary.”

“It could just be exclusion of that person and his or her contacts, a classroom if it’s a lot of spread in that classroom, or a wing or a hall of the building, possibly the whole building itself,” she said. “But it would be very unlikely to me to close an entire district in one fell swoop.”


Gov. Bill Lee schools coronavirus COVID-19 school reopening

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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