The district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was the major topic of the White County School Board meeting, on Nov. 12, with the board gathering information from both Kurt Dronebarger, director of schools, and Marcie Kinnaird, coordinated health supervisor.
“It’s been a difficult couple of weeks,” Dronebarger told the board and added that the number of positive cases and quarantined students over the past two weeks is more than in the previous four combined. “We have almost 500 students that are quarantined across the district and about 24 faculty and staff.”
Dronebarger has often used a traffic light analogy to describe where the school district was in response to questions about the status of the virus in White County schools. He again referred to the color codes and said the county has still reached a level where they would be considered in the red but rather are now in the yellow in one category (quarantines) and still considered green for the three other categories being measured.
“Remember that seven times that number are still in school five days a week,” he said, and explaining that 3,500 students are still participating in in-person classroom learning on a daily basis and added that the district is having to use more substitutes than in the past to cover for the number of faculty that are being quarantined. “It’s a challenge, but we’re making it through.”
Kinnaird, who has been filling in at the high school for a nurse who has left the position, reported she analyzed some of the positive cases from the high school and found there is a direct relationship between 16 of the 19 students that she tracked.
“This is why we quarantine - this is why we send them home,” she said.
Kinnaird said students can be positive before showing symptoms and can be exposing other students. She stated the only way to reduce that exposure is to quarantine the students who have had direct contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
“A lot of these, we sent them home to quarantine and then they became symptomatic while they were on quarantine and then called us to tell us they had become positive,” Kinnaird said.
Kinnaird responded to questions from board members and said she would estimate that roughly half of the students who are sent home to quarantine do develop symptoms and become positive for the virus. She added that Tennessee Health Department estimates 40 percent of quarantined people are sick and don’t know it, further supporting her estimation for the number of positive cases that come during quarantines.
She reiterated the school only sends students home, on behalf of the health department, if they have been in direct contact with a positive case, and that contact totaled 15 minutes or more, at less than six feet, during a 24-hour period.
Kinnaird went on to say she has spent the last couple of weeks visiting classrooms at White County High School and understands it is not possible to keep students six feet away from each other. The desks are only able to be three feet apart when classrooms are at full capacity rather than when they were at half-capacity as they were when schools were using the Hybrid Learning method, in August. Kinnaird also said she has observed students in classrooms not wearing their masks properly and others not wearing them at all. She pointed to all of the factors as reasons to keep quarantines in place.
Dronebarger addressed concerns that some parents have mentioned about the number of family members quarantined and reminded everyone that quarantines are for those who have direct contact with a person who has tested positive. He indicated that since all family members are not in the same classroom, this would be reflected by some members being asked to quarantine, while others were not.
“We suggest that you keep them home and actually encourage parents as an extra precaution, or even out of convenience, to keep that child home,” Dronebarger said. “We don’t charge them absences. We treat it just like they are on quarantine.”
“I will remind you that we are schools. We are not medical facilities,” Dronebarger went on to say in response to questions about how many students are developing symptoms.
He said unless a family notifies them, they have no way to know the answers to questions about the true number of positive cases within the system.
“We don’t test,” Dronebarger said. “There is a push, with these rapid tests coming out, for schools to do that. I am not in favor of our schools doing that testing.”
Kinnaird added that testing is out of the scope of practice for a nurse as it is considered diagnosing and would require a nurse practitioner, a physician’s assistant, or a doctor.
"I do not want the nurses to be doing that because that's a great way to lose our license,” she told the board. “If we did, there would need to be a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant hired for the school system.”
Kinnaird spoke about the recent increases in positive cases and said the rate at which they are increasing is concerning.
“We were at 11.9 percent positivity rate on Friday of last week,” she said. “By Monday, we had gone up to 13-and-a-half percent. Today we are at 14.8 percent positivity rate. The numbers are going up, and it is going to continue to go up, and we have to be diligent about slowing it down.”
When asked if she felt the board should revisit the possibility of Virtual Learning, Kinnaird wasn’t eager to make that jump just yet.
“If they [positivity rates] continue to climb, I think hybrid would be a better option,” she responded. “They are at least getting some in-class learning time, but they are able to cut their classes in half and socially distance.”
The board, upon the suggestion of Dronebarger, voted to approve making Nov. 23-24 Virtual Learning days in which students would participate in prepared lessons from home. The two days, which will immediately precede the already planned Thanksgiving break from Nov. 25 through Nov. 27, would create a nine-day block in which students would be at home. The board hopes this will help stop the spread of the virus.
“I think it’s an opportunity to take advantage of the Thanksgiving break,” Dronebarger said.
By offering online learning for the two days, the extended break would not count against the district’s snow days. However, Dronebarger was quick to add that teachers wouldn’t be overloading students with too many assignments.
“We want to take a pause and get healthier and come back and have three strong weeks going into Christmas break,” he said.
“I would argue that this is living with it [COVID-19],” he said, addressing the requests to reconsider masks and quarantines one more time. “I would hate to say that we weren’t doing everything we were told by experts that are the best practices that we can have right now. I don’t like it. I don’t like the masks. I don’t like quarantining. Nobody likes it. But I’m listening to people who do this as a living, and they are saying these are the best practices.”