A small group of parents and two school board members asked for face masks to be required in Oak Ridge Schools, but no decision was made during a school board meeting Monday evening.
Some students are too young to get vaccinated, the parents and school board members said. Others have only had one COVID-19 vaccination shot and aren’t fully vaccinated. Four days into the new school year, parent Gretchen Toney said her daughter has already been exposed to COVID-19 at Robertsville Middle School and sent home to quarantine, potentially exposing her four-year-old son at home and continuing to prevent a visit by her father, who has cancer.
Parent Laetitia Delmau said her children at RMS and Oak Ridge High School are getting non-stop comments because they wear masks for their own protection, and the schools should be free of harassment and bullying.
Citing reports from their children and their own personal observations, parents said few people are wearing masks in Oak Ridge Schools.
The parents asked the school system to follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommended on Tuesday that everyone should wear a mask indoors in K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also recommended universal masking in schools this fall, and on Monday, the University of Tennessee announced it will require masks in many indoor settings this fall semester.
“I really request that we follow the CDC guidelines,” Toney said.
Although they were required last year, masks are optional in Oak Ridge Schools so far this year. The relaxation of that requirement occurred this spring as the number of COVID-19 cases was slowly declining over several months.
But since about July 12, the number of COVID-19 cases in Anderson County has climbed steadily and surged in Tennessee as the more transmissible delta variant dominates the spread of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes COVID-19. The new variant is reported to be driving a fourth surge in the United States and affecting more young people.
On Monday, Oak Ridge Board of Education members Angi Agle and Ben Stephens said they support re-implementing a mask mandate in Oak Ridge Schools. More than 50 percent of students are not old enough for vaccinations, Agle said, and the spread of the virus can put others at risk.
“It’s not too much to ask to wear a mask, and I think it helps,” Agle said.
Stephens said he would prefer to err on the side of caution.
“I wholeheartedly agree with all students having masks,” Stephens said.
He objected to anyone being bullied for wearing a mask at school.
“We’ve got no time for bullying at this juncture,” Stephens said. “We’re talking about people’s lives.”
The new daily case rates and positivity rates have continued to climb in Anderson County. The county had a low seven-day average of 0.4 new cases per day reported about three weeks ago, on July 6. But by Sunday, that seven-day average had increased to 18.4 new cases per day, a level last reported in March after the winter peak.
The positivity rate, a measure of the positive tests each day, has also increased. About a month ago, the seven-day positivity average had been down to about 2 percent to 3 percent, below the World Health Organization guideline of 5 percent. But by Monday, it was 17.3 percent, which is high. The one-day positivity rate on Sunday was 28 percent, a level not reported since the end of the winter peak in January.
“I think it’s really important to protect our kids by requiring masks in school,” said Nathan Wells, a critical care nurse who has a son in Oak Ridge Schools. The children are in close proximity to each other, with close to two dozen students in a classroom, and not all are vaccinated, Wells said.
School board members also report receiving emails from parents who don’t want masks to be required.
On Monday, Oak Ridge Board of Education Chair Keys Fillauer said the school board would not make a decision about whether to require masks during its evening meeting but could make a decision later, whether this week or next. He said he regularly talks to Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers about the conditions in the school system.
“We are on top of it,” Fillauer said.
Borchers described steps the school system is taking as part of its health and safety plan. Those include making hand sanitizer available, disinfecting classrooms and school buses, offering COVID test kits using a grant, and being one of the few districts in the region tracking close contacts. There have been vaccine clinics for students and staff members, and technology installed in schools to help with air filtration, Borchers said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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