Tennessee schools are between a rock and a hard place.

The rock is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which is impacting the number of students in class and the faculty and staff available to teach them. The hard place is limitations from the state on how they can teach students this school year.

Cumberland County schools finished their third week last week. According to the weekly report, 418 students were out either because they had COVID-19 or were exposed to someone who had the virus. That’s the size of a small elementary school.

Last year, every school system had to have a plan for how they would serve students during the pandemic. In Cumberland County as in other school systems, schools offered in-person learning and virtual learning. It also made provisions for remote learning should illness require the closing of schools.

In April, the state limited the ability of schools to offer that remote learning option.

Sure, schools can close if illness is widespread. They’ve done that in the past for things like the flu or stomach viruses. But those illnesses have a pretty short shelf-life. The absences from COVID-19 can be two weeks or more.

Schools must provide 180 days of instruction each school year. That’s state law. They can use 13 “snow days” if they have to miss for inclement weather or other emergencies. But a two-week pause would quickly use that time up. Then school systems have to figure out how to make up their time through extended school days, eliminating scheduled breaks and days off or extending the school year into June.

The Centers for Disease Control tells us that masks can help slow the spread of the virus by stopping particles with the virus at their source. In essence, one person’s mask protects you from them. Your mask protects them from you.

But mask mandates were incredibly unpopular last year. 

State leaders, including Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, made clear they want students in the classrooms. They also made clear they don’t want school systems requiring masks. Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order saying parents can opt out of locally implemented mask mandates in schools. 

The vaccine, which can prevent serious illness and death, isn’t available to the majority of public school students who are younger than 12. And while the number of teens getting the vaccine is growing, there’s hardly widespread vaccination happening. There’s also a good number of the adults in the community who aren’t vaccinated. 

What’s a school system to do? 

There are no perfect answers.

Cleaning, hand washing and good respiratory etiquette all help. Social distancing helps, though it’s difficult to practice in schools with full classrooms and crowded halls. Keeping your child home if they are sick — even a little sick — can help.

You can also send your child to school with a mask and tell them to wear it. 

Are masks perfect? No. But medical professionals tell us they do make a difference. We should be listening to the medical professionals. 

We should also be offering ways to keep students engaged and learning even during quarantine. We should be making it easier for parents to get their kids tested for the virus. 

Schools need support. They need help finding solutions — and none of the potential solutions should be off the table.

— Crossville Chronicle

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