Tennessee school district parents planning a 'sickout' to up the pressure on COVID-19 safety

Some parents of the Knox County Schools in Tennessee planned to keep their students home Monday to put pressure on local and state educational leaders to improve COVID-19 safety protocols.

Eric Moore is a parent who is helping organize the "sickout" to force administrators to follow guidance from the Knox County Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and create a more robust virtual experience for students who are home sick or quarantined.

"What we really need to be doing is listening to our public health experts at the CDC and the American Association of Pediatrics and the Knox County Board of Health. And, so, you know, what I would like to see is for Knox County schools to make a commitment to following the best practice guidelines as delineated by those organizations," he told Knox News.

Moore has seven children, including three elementary students being homeschooled because he doesn't feel safe sending them in-person. He also has two children who are vaccinated against COVID-19 and are learning in-person at Gresham Middle School.

Moore said the demonstration isn't just about masks, social distancing or any one COVID-19 safety strategy. He said it's about listening to medical experts as they learn new information about the virus.

"I don't want to advocate for a certain procedure or policy, specifically, but rather that we will commit to doing what public health experts in our country are telling us we should be doing to keep our children safe," he said.

Talk of Monday's sickout and nearly 3,500 parents collaborating through a Facebook group have already caught the attention of school administrators and Knox County Board of Education members. On Friday, the school board announced a special meeting set for Wednesday night to discuss mask mandate proposals and changes to the case count dashboard, which showed 905 district cases on Friday.

Knox County Schools spokeswoman Carly Harrington discouraged parents from participating in the sickout. But Harrington said isolated and quarantined students should stay home.

The district's attendance policy allows for excused and unexcused absences. Keeping a student home as a form of protest would count as an unexcused absence because it is not on the excused absence list, Harrington confirmed.

Moore said that even if the school district was following pandemic best practices, there would still be students who need to isolate or quarantine. Because of that, he said, the district needs to outline a virtual learning plan for those stuck at home.

Moore said the board of education, superintendent and governor are passing the buck.

"If as the board claims and as Bob Thomas and Bill Lee all claim that they're concerned about learning loss, then the biggest problem contributing to learning loss right now is that students have to be out. And yet there is not good provisions for virtual learning or support for children while they are out."

Quarantined students can do assignments at home, but the school district does not encourage teachers to do real-time instruction for these students.

Harrington said last week that live instruction would require teachers to simultaneously teach in-person and virtually.

Currently, masks are optional in district schools, social distancing is harder to do with more in-person learners and visitors are allowed back in school settings. The school board will meet Wednesday to discuss how to handle sick days for employees required to isolate, what information is on the district's public COVID-19 dashboard and possible revisions on the student attendance policy.

Cases have been sharply rising in Knox County, in the 11-county Knoxville Hospital District and across the state over the past two months.

On average, Knox County saw 244 new cases a day this week.

Across the Knoxville Hospital District in the past 28 days, there were more than 16,000 new cases, an increase of more than 450% over the 2,915 new cases over the previous 28 days.

New patients are trending younger than they were earlier in the pandemic. The majority of new cases are among working-age adults and people younger than 20.

Contributing: Vincent Gabrielle

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Knox County Schools parents plan sick out Monday due to COVID-19 rules