Oak Ridge Schools will not require face masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 after Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed an executive order Monday allowing parents to opt out of mask mandates issued by school or health boards. However, Oak Ridge Schools will continue to strongly recommend students wear masks in schools where there is an increase in confirmed COVID cases or evidence of the virus being transmitted in the building.
Before the governor’s order, Oak Ridge Schools had required masks at three schools: Jefferson Middle School, Robertsville Middle School, and Willow Brook Elementary School. Now, the use of masks is strongly encouraged in those schools but not required. All three schools have reported more than 20 COVID cases each.
The governor’s order allowed parents and guardians to use a written notification to opt out of mask mandates for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Some parents and government officials supported the order, while others, including doctors and parents, opposed it. School districts in Nashville and Shelby County said they will continue to require masks. That prompted a retort from Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, who said that “the governor and the General Assembly cannot and will not allow lawful orders to be defied.”
The Tennessee Hospital Association recommends face masks in indoor public places along with vaccination.
“A mask traps droplets that are released when the wearer talks, coughs, or sneezes, and containing the droplets helps stop the spread of COVID-19,” the THA said. “Masking also protects the person wearing the mask by reducing the number of infectious droplets they inhale.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends vaccinations and universal indoor masking by all students (ages 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends keeping masks on in school and urging everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as the AAP advocates for in-person learning this school year.
In a letter to families on Wednesday, Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers said the school system wants students to participate in as much face-to-face instruction as possible this year.
“Reducing the transmission of COVID in our buildings will help us do that,” Borchers said.
In Oak Ridge, as of noon Friday, there had been 152 COVID-19 cases among students and staff members this school year, with 93 percent of them (142 cases) among students.
The largest number of cases continues to be at Robertsville, where 49 total cases had been reported as of noon Friday. There have been 48 student cases, with 32 of those current, and one staff case.
The second-largest number of cases is at Willow Brook, where 44 total cases have been reported. There have been 40 student cases, with 16 of those current. There have been four staff cases, with none of those current.
The third-largest number of cases is at Jefferson, where 23 total cases have been reported. There have been 21 student cases, with eight of those current. There are two current staff cases.
Oak Ridge High School has had 20 total cases. Seventeen of those have been student cases, with eight of those current, and three staff cases, with two of those current.
Linden Elementary School has had 11 student cases, with seven of those current.
Woodland Elementary School has had three student cases, with two of those current, and Secret City Academy has two current student cases.
Most of the COVID cases reported by Oak Ridge Schools have been among students, 142. Seventy-five of those were current at noon Friday.
Ten staff members have been infected, with four of those current early Friday afternoon.
The number of cases has increased by 143 in 2.5 weeks, from nine on Wednesday, August 4, to 152 on Friday, August 20.
Students returned to school about three weeks ago, on Wednesday, July 29, although teachers and staff were in schools before then. The fiscal year began July 1.
On Monday, Oak Ridge Schools reported most students and staff members have reported mild symptoms that resemble a common cold or mild flu. Four Oak Ridge Schools staff members have been hospitalized since the pandemic began in March 2020. There have been no student or staff fatalities since the pandemic began, the school system said.
Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers said the source of exposure to COVID-19 varies.
â€œA high percentage of students are unable to identify the source of exposure, while others feel the source was a family member, family gathering, or friend,â€ Borchers said Monday.
Borchers said it is difficult to provide an exact number of students and staff who have been in quarantine or who are in quarantine due to COVID-19 because single students can be identified as a close contact of multiple students.
â€œStudents restricted from attending school currently exceeds 200 students,â€ Borchers said Monday morning.
COVID-19 can be transmitted from person to person either through respiratory droplets or aerosol transmission, leading to various measures to reduce the spread, including face masks, physical distancing, and proper ventilation. Health officials also try to track the close contacts of infected people, and they urge vaccinations to try to prevent the worst effects of COVID.
Health officials have said vaccines are the best tool to fight COVID. Students 12 years old and older are eligible for vaccines. Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines and make an appointment for a shot here.
Besides vaccines, experts have said face masks are a tool that can be used to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID.
Health officials say the delta variant of the new coronavirus is responsible for 80 percent or more of new cases and the fourth surge of COVID in the United States. The surge in Tennessee started a month or so ago. The surge in Anderson County cases started about July 12. Medical workers across the United States have said this more transmissible variant is affecting more young people, especially the unvaccinated, and they and patients and parents of young patients have repeatedly urged people to get vaccinated to avoid the worst effects of COVID-19.
The school system has a case count dashboard that is updated daily and posted on its website at COVID Information â€“ Oak Ridge Schools (ortn.edu).
The pandemic began in Tennessee in March 2020.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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