Reopening in-person classes with a 10.2% positivity rate – this is crazy!

My name is Kathryn Vaughn and I teach art to about 800 elementary school students in Tipton County, which is the next county north of Memphis and Shelby County.  My husband, a combat veteran, and I moved to TN in 2001 and I have taught in the school system since 2006.

Kathryn Vaughn

I knew from the time I was little that I wanted to be a teacher.  My mother is a teacher and I grew up in her classroom, helping her with tasks like cleaning the blackboard and setting up the classroom for the next day.  When I was in college I decided to pursue art education.  I greatly benefited from arts education growing up, and I wanted to bring that to rural Tennessee, where many students did not have that opportunity before I arrived at my school.  I’ve spent the last 11 years building an art program that is recognized across the country. I have become an advocate and a leader in arts education in the United States.

Last week, I went back to my school building.  It has been vacant since March when Governor Lee ordered public schools closed in Tennessee due to the spread of coronavirus.  I am back in my school, along with 100 of my colleagues, to prepare our classrooms for reopening in-person learning.  We are training together inside the building, in a poorly ventilated cafeteria, and mask wearing is optional.

Here is what doesn’t make sense to me.  At the time our schools closed in March, Tipton County had fewer than 25 active cases. 

Because Governor Lee issued a stay at home order in April, after being pressured by over 2,000 doctors, we slowed the spread of coronavirus.  But, then Governor Lee ignored those same doctors, and rushed to reopen things without a careful plan to contain the virus  – and now things are much worse. 

Tipton County, at last count, has over 400 active cases.  Our most recent positivity rate is 10.2% and our 7-day average is 9.6%.  Clearly, we are not meeting CDC guidelines for safely reopening schools.  Our total case count is second only to Shelby County among West TN counties.   And we’re reopening in-person classrooms?  This is crazy!

Don’t get me wrong – I love teaching – I love being with the children – I love being in the classroom.  But here’s what I worry about:  

  • My district has mandated masks for all staff and students, but many teachers are only wearing them in the hallway and not while we are in meetings.  It doesn’t feel like my community is taking this seriously.  I’ve been sick to my stomach all week being the only person in meeting rooms wearing a mask.  Our district did furnish better masks than the sock masks we got from Governor Lee, but our sanitizing supplies promised by the state still haven’t arrived.
  • Our nurses do not have enough supplies for our clinics to care for children.  Teachers are being asked to donate items so that our nurses can do their jobs.  I am trying to save money so I can buy a laptop for distance teaching and can’t afford to contribute.  I did wash her car for free at my night job though. 
  • Budgets are a huge issue this school year because schools didn’t have their spring fundraisers.

When students return next week, I will be on a cart, visiting 38 classrooms, and instead of teaching art, I will be teaching COVID safety for the month of August.  I will be able to resume teaching art in my classroom after Labor Day, if we are still here.

Governor Lee – we need leadership.  Rushing to reopen schools without getting COVID-19 under control will have the same result we have now, because  we reopened the state too quickly in May.  But, this time it will impact our students, teachers and families.  

We need a statewide mask mandate now – I don’t want to go back to in-person classrooms until we have mandatory safety protocols in place.  I don’t want to be in the position of endangering the lives of children and teachers.  If children and teachers have the option of not wearing a mask – that’s a danger to everyone in the classroom.  Our local district is doing everything it can, but we need action, resources and help on a statewide level before it is safe to resume in person classes.  

I am very sympathetic with parents that need a place for their children to go, that need for their children to be in school.  I know that our children’s social and emotional health is a lot dependent on our schools.  As teachers, we are on the frontline of noticing signs of abuse and neglect in children.  BUT, the cracks of our poorly funded education system are definitely showing through this pandemic.  We just simply don’t have the support to make it through this without teachers and children getting sick.  The acceptable number of teacher or student deaths from this is ZERO.  What is going to happen to the mental and emotional health of a child, if one of their teachers gets sick and dies, or one of their grandparents?

 1200 cases in Tipton County are already too many.  How many more cases will it take before Governor Lee and our elected officials take this seriously?  How many people will have to lose their lives before you take action and be the leader we elected you to be?