A lesson in what not to do: School openings in Tennessee

A lesson in what not to do: School openings in Tennessee
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Children in Tennessee have returned to school and the results have been disastrous. Many of our school districts and state leaders are simply failing the exam.

In the 2020-21 school year, many districts diligently followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines to allow for in-person learning, or instead opted for hybrid and virtual learning, which by and large kept children healthy and safe.

The opposite has been true for this school year. They gave up the lesson plan, hoping that COVID-19 would simply go away. Or perhaps the plan this year is to simply let COVID-19 run rampant through our schools to infect as many children as possible. If so, it’s a lesson plan that is working, but one we sincerely hope other states will not follow.

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Children under 12 years of age are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines. Vaccine rates in southern states for children and adolescents ages 12 and up are some of the worst in the nation. These facts, combined with the emergence of the Delta variant and the return to school with lack of mitigation measures, have all coalesced to create a crisis. Tennessee is seeing rates of pediatric COVID-19 cases at levels higher than any other time in the pandemic. Schools are shutting down due to students and staff being infected and in isolation or being quarantined from a close exposure.

Tennessee has removed a blanket virtual option for school districts altogether, instead requiring districts to apply school by school. School board meetings have turned contentious around mask requirements. The governor has issued an executive order to allow parents to opt out of any mask mandates — not that many districts have these in place to start with. Some districts have given up on trying to contact trace. A student was heckled for telling the story of his grandmother, an educator who died of COVID-19 after being exposed to unmasked children, at another board meeting where he was asking for masking.

While Tennessee provides a great lesson on what not to do, the CDC and AAP have provided excellent guidance on what to do in order to keep kids learning in-person safely. This includes vaccination for all children over age 12. It includes numerous mitigation policies, most importantly universal masking of all students, teachers, staff and visitors in all K-12 schools. Other measures include physical distancing, hand washing, contact tracing and quarantining, screening and testing, ventilation as well as cleaning. 

We know what to do and there is ample science to back up the effectiveness of masks. While we all recognize the need for children to learn in-person and start with that common goal, we must be willing to take and enact the measures to get there. Children have suffered immensely in their academics, mental health and more while being out of school for extended periods of time. We must prioritize the health and well-being of our children.

Unfortunately, allowing COVID-19 to run rampant through schools has consequences. Despite quotes from numerous lawmakers that COVID-19 doesn’t affect children, it in fact does. In addition to cases, hospitalizations have spiked, long-haul COVID-19 can affect children as well as adults, and we are already starting to see cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. Additionally, students and staff have died since the start of school in Tennessee.

This is all preventable or at least reducible. States, districts and schools must follow CDC and AAP guidelines to keep children in school in-person while also keeping this healthy and safe. Too many parents feel like they have no good options right now, that they are sending their child to school to inevitably contract COVID-19. Some modeling data shows that without proper mitigation efforts, up to 90 percent of children will contract COVID-19 by the end of the semester. This is not an acceptable approach or strategy to preventing COVID-19. In fact, it is an utter lack of a plan, a lack of a strategy. The protocols and procedures that schools followed last year worked. We must have robust plans in place that include universal masking. 

Children are being affected unlike any time before in the pandemic. Tennessee in particular needs to get serious about their schoolwork, study and bring our grades up, or else we will be repeating this grade over and over again at the expense of our children. Please don’t follow the Tennessee lesson plan.

Jason Yaun, MD, FAAP, is vice president of the Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonYaunMD

Anna Morad, MD, FAAP, is president of the Tennessee Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Follow her on Twitter: @morad_aw