Back to School in Masks

Less than a week before the Aug. 10 start of Davidson County’s school year, Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Board of Education voted to require masking for students and faculty during 2021-2022. The 8-1 vote landed amid boos and cheers from citizens in a special meeting called to address the matter on Thursday, Aug. 5. 

The meeting took place during a rise in COVID-19 cases driven by the Delta variant. A day before the school board’s meeting, Mayor John Cooper reinstated mask mandates in government buildings, citing a 9 percent rise in cases since June. Later that day, MNPS Director Dr. Adrienne Battle released a statement recommending school board members require masks in schools. The Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics also sent out a press release on Aug. 4 supporting CDC and AAP guidance for universal masking in schools and urging those who are eligible to get vaccinated.

Fran Bush was the only school board member to vote against a mandate. “There is no data to support any of this right now,” she said. “There’s no state mandate … so why are we doing this to our children?” 

Despite Bush’s claim, there is indeed evidence that COVID-19 hospitalizations are on the rise throughout Tennessee. Last week, the Tennessee Department of Health released data showing an uptick in COVID-positive hospital patients, including patients ages 17 and younger. (Children younger than 12 are still ineligible for any COVID vaccination.) Soon after Thursday’s MNPS meeting, Vanderbilt University Medical Center announced that it will postpone inpatient surgeries to make room for an increasing number of COVID-19 patients as well as “a seasonal rise in trauma cases, and a record total of admissions of ‘regular’ pediatric and respiratory viral illnesses.” Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey also told The Tennessean last week that children’s hospitals were filling up with patients. “Never in my career have I seen hospitals full in the summer,” said Piercey. 

District 7 school board member Freda Player-Peters compared COVID-19 to secondhand smoke. “When you’re in society, secondhand smoke can affect other people in the room,” she said at Thursday’s meeting. “[If] you want to do it in your home, outside, that is your right, but we have to protect our children.” District 1 school board member Sharon Gentry acknowledged that she and her colleagues on the board are not medical professionals, but noted that “our responsibility is to what happens in our schools, not to what happens in your individual homes.”

There’s one aspect of the 2021-2022 school year that most agree on: Getting kids back to in-person learning is a priority. Recently released TCAP data shows that, after students attended school virtually for most of last year, test scores were down a significant though not unexpected amount. Student academic achievement levels throughout all grade levels and subjects appear to have been affected.

Though she supports universal masking in schools, District 9 board member Abigail Tylor raised concerns about the issues masks can bring, especially among young learners who need to see facial expressions and mouth movements. This same concern can apply to English-language learners or students receiving speech therapy. Tylor suggested clear masks and other possible strategies to facilitate this kind of learning. 

Tabitha Austin, a school nurse at West End Middle School, spoke to the Scene before the school board set its requirements. Though she understands the importance of masks — she made a point to clarify that she is not anti-mask — she noted that it’s a complicated topic.

“I agree there should be masks mandated in the common areas,” Austin told the Scene. “But I feel once [students are] in the classroom at their desks, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to take their masks off, because I feel like that protects them physically, medically … and also it takes into account their social and mental health needs, which are just as important.”

According to a press release issued last week by the Metropolitan Nashville Educators Association, nearly 66 percent of the 756 MNPS staff surveyed wanted a mask mandate in schools.

“No, the wearing of the mask is not tedious,” Vanderbilt University School of Medicine professor Dr. William Schaffner said in a recent interview with the Scene. “Children can be used to it. It’s happened all over the country. It does not make them sick. It doesn’t make your surgeon sick — if the surgeon has to wear the mask for eight hours in an operation, it’s not gonna make your child sick. Put that away, that’s all malarkey.”

“We are, in our community, at high risk of virus transmission,” Dr. Stephen Patrick, director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Child Health Policy, tells the Scene. “We’re seeing the Delta variant that is far more transmissible, and we’ve seen outbreaks throughout the country involving children. The best evidence is that ... kids [should] be wearing masks at school, as well as teachers.”

Plenty of Tennessee’s Republican leaders, however, do not think masks should be required. At an Aug. 2 press conference, Gov. Bill Lee said that parents should be the ones to make that decision. State House Speaker Cameron Sexton threatened schools with possible legislative action if they adopt mask mandates. 

“I sure hope that school systems do not require a mask mandate for those students,” said Sexton. “And if they do, I’m going to ask the governor for a special session. If they close the schools, I’m going to ask the governor for a special session.” He also threatened legislation that could offer vouchers to parents, enabling them to use state funds to send children to the schools of their choice, including private schools. After the school board set its mask mandate, Sexton told The Tennessean that he is “starting discussions with House members.” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, however, said he thinks the decision should be left to local school boards.  

Despite the debates of the past week, kids are returning to school on Tuesday wearing masks, and it will likely have to stay that way until transmission rates drop. As the rise of the Delta variant continues to increase case counts in adults and children, it’s impossible to predict when that might be. 

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