The leader of Tennessee’s largest teacher organization is calling on Gov. Bill Lee to take immediate action to protect and support classroom teachers due to the high rate of COVID-19 transmission affecting educators.
Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown urged the governor Monday to set firm guidance on when school buildings should close due to infection rates and ensure that all students and staff wear face coverings for those that remain open.
She also called for emergency state funding to pay for high-quality protective gear, updated air quality systems, hazard duty pay, and extended sick leave for all staff directly involved with students.
The urgent appeal is based on the organization’s ongoing review of local infection data showing that active COVID-19 case rates of school staff are consistently higher — sometimes double — the rates of the communities that their schools serve.
“The data indicate in-person instruction increases infection risk and that Tennessee educators will become ill at a far higher rate than the state’s general population,” Brown wrote the governor.
The state health department on Monday reported record highs for the number of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations among Tennesseans, plus 30 more deaths to bring the state’s total fatality count from the virus to 3,923.
A spokesman for the governor did not immediately respond when asked about TEA’s appeal. But the pandemic was expected to top the list of issues discussed by Lee at his weekly press conference scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
Lee has mostly left decisions about schools to local officials since calling for a statewide school shutdown in March after many districts already had shuttered campuses because of the coronavirus. While frequently encouraging Tennesseans to wear masks, he has declined to require them, choosing instead to authorize local mayors to take that action. Recently, the governor told reporters he was not considering emergency funding to help schools deal with local spikes in transmission, but he continued to push for in-person instruction over virtual learning.
This month, numerous schools and districts have shifted temporarily to remote learning. On Monday, the director of Nashville schools told parents they should prepare for a return to virtual schooling after Thanksgiving break in the state’s second largest district.
“Just like many of you, I am seeing the daily case counts and becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the direction we are headed with the virus,” said Director Adrienne Battle.
Since September, the state education department has published school- and district-level COVID-19 data on its website to inform parents and school communities about transmission. But the dashboard relies on voluntary reporting from the state’s 147 school districts.
Brown complained that the department’s data is inaccurate and called on Lee’s administration either to improve the dashboard or take it down.
“It is clear there are significant errors in the dashboard,” she said. “Gross underreporting is apparent when the student infection numbers are cross-referenced with concurrent Department of Health cases for school-age children.”
In previous briefings, the governor has referred to data from the dashboard when asked about his decisions regarding schools.
Brown said the state should require every school district to publish accurate local COVID-19 dashboards for the remainder of the pandemic.
Her organization also called on the governor to:
- Enforce all federal CDC guidelines for school operations;
- Issue guidance to prioritize assigning educators with underlying conditions to remote instruction; and
- Provide additional health benefits and coverage for staff who have been infected.