Leatherwood: Schools will run into challenges staying open in COVID world

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 22, 2020 4:00 AM CT | Published: August 22, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Schools across the state will be hard-pressed to remain open because of quarantine rules and the domino effect of just one person catching COVID-19, state Rep. Tom Leatherwood says.

Leatherwood, an Arlington Republican whose wife teaches first grade, wonders how schools will be able to continue operating if, for instance, one teacher tests positive for the virus and after coming into contact with several other teachers and students.

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Under guidelines the state is following, anyone who has been within 6 feet of that teacher for 10 minutes or longer will have to quarantine at home for 14 days.

Leatherwood raises questions about whether there are enough substitute teachers to fill such a void and whether they are trained adequately for remote classes, Zoom and other new methods to keep schools going.

<strong>Tom Leatherwood</strong>

Tom Leatherwood

“And that’s just people who test positive, even if they’re asymptomatic and maybe it’s a false positive. Who knows? But regardless, people are quarantined,” Leatherwood says. “The schools really face difficult challenges right now, and that is why I support, and the state is trying to be, as flexible as we can with the schools here as we try and work our way through it.”

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, more than 2,000 children ages 5-18 tested positive for COVID-19 during the past two weeks. More than 200 of those were in Shelby County.

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Education Department Commissioner Penny Schwinn agrees keeping schools open is a difficult task. But she says schools are being instructed to have teachers stay at least 6 feet apart when they have meetings, eat lunch or have any other type of congregation for extended periods.

Schwinn noted the department saw pictures of teachers sitting together at tables in large groups during the summer, a practice that is being discouraged.

“If teachers are able to do that kind of separation, they can still have that social interaction that we know is really important in schools, and it means if one is positive it is more controlled to that classroom,” Schwinn says.

<strong>Penny Schwinn</strong>

Penny Schwinn

Though the state is publishing the numbers of school-age children with COVID-19 on the Department of Health website, it isn’t placing that type of information on a Department of Education “dashboard.”

A query for Shelby County Schools turns up a response that “All schools not listed are following the current district model.” No other information is available about the district, whose students will attend remotely during the fall quarter beginning in late August.

Other Shelby County systems, such as Arlington Community Schools, Collierville Schools and Germantown Municipal Schools, are using a mixture of in-person classes and remote teaching and could be affected by the scenario Leatherwood describes.

Gov. Bill Lee said this week his administration is checking with the U.S. Department of Education to see how much information it can release on COVID-19 cases in individual schools and remain in compliance with federal health privacy laws.

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The Lee Administration has maintained it can’t post information publicly on schools because of the possibility it could violate federal privacy rules and identify children who have the virus.

Some Tennessee school systems, though, are making that information public. Putnam County Schools in Cookeville posts totals on its website showing how many cases are being reported at individual schools.

Rutherford County Schools in Middle Tennessee notifies parents of any cases at their child’s school and, in cases of outbreaks, makes the information public. It has already shut down an elementary and middle school because of large case numbers.

Information is not available, though, with a breakdown on student, teacher and staff cases of COVID-19 to help parents determine whether their child could be in danger.

Lee contends the state has to “balance” transparency versus concerns about identifying people who could be ill.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do


Tom Leatherwood Penny Schwinn Bill Lee
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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