On Monday, Metro Nashville Public Schools reported that 201 students were confirmed positive for COVID-19 during the week of Sept 27 through Oct. 3, along with 32 staff members. An additional 1,472 staff and students were in quarantine. These numbers are updated every Monday on MNPS’ COVID-19 tracker, and since the beginning of the school year, around 3,475 students and staff have reportedly tested positive, while another 19,229 have needed to isolate. The district is made up of nearly 83,000 students.
All of these cases come amid strict mask mandates, which MNPS has had to fight for. MNPS declared its mask mandate just five days before school started, with mixed reactions from parents. Shortly after, Gov. Bill Lee signed an executive order enabling parents to opt their children out of mask mandates throughout the state, but MNPS ignored Lee’s order, telling Davidson County families that Nashville public schools would continue to require masks. So far, the district has not faced any repercussions for defying the executive order.
Meanwhile, Lee’s executive order has been blocked by three federal judges in Williamson, Knox and Shelby counties and is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery is challenging two out of the three federal rulings, and Lee announced via Twitter on Sept. 30 that he would extend the executive order, which was set to expire on Oct. 5. The governor also announced an Oct. 18 special session that will focus on the Memphis site that the Ford Motor Co. is planning to occupy, but he hinted at a discussion about masks in schools. “The special session on October 18 will stay focused on next steps for the Memphis Regional Megasite,” he tweeted, “and we’ll stand up for parents in court” — referencing his argument that parents should make decisions about their children wearing masks, rather than health experts and individual school districts.
According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tennessee has seen more than 400 school closures since the beginning of August — more than any other state in the country. Yet MNPS, one of the largest districts in the state, hasn’t shut down any schools (though MNPS spokesperson Sean Braisted confirms that some individual classrooms have had to shut down). The continuous in-person instruction is a likely result of Nashville schools’ strictly enforced mask mandate. But even if schools wanted to shut down, they would need permission from Tennessee education commissioner Penny Schwinn, or else they’d have to rely on a limited number of allotted stockpile days, which are typically reserved for teacher development or inclement weather.
Though MNPS has had success in keeping schools open, it hasn’t been an easy task. This is especially true for the nurses spearheading public schools’ COVID-19 response. “It’s basically all COVID, all the time,” Tabitha Ford told the Scene in early September. Ford is a school nurse working at Julia Green Elementary, though like many other nurses, she’s had to cover more than one school. Before the school year started, and before the mask mandate was declared, she told the Scene she didn’t think a mask mandate was necessary when students could maintain more than three feet of distance (which is the schools’ guidelines for social distancing).
“I, going in, had really hoped it would be like this summer and masks [would] go away or at least, like I’d said earlier, be put away at their desks,” Ford told the Scene after the school year began. “But this surge, it has really hit the schools hard. … I’ve had several staff members test positive that were vaccinated. … It’s not just my school. I’ve been talking with other nurses. … We’re all overwhelmed with the amount of cases.”
Every day, on top of other nursing duties, Ford and nurses across the district communicate with parents whose students have tested positive for COVID-19 or are showing symptoms. They also field parents’ questions, advise them whether or not they should send their kids to school, administer rapid tests, contact trace, and guide families through their quarantine periods. On top of the already exhausting work, Ford says she gets “yelled at or cussed out almost every day [by parents]. But that’s not all the parents. … It’s the exception rather than the norm, thankfully.”
While nurses are playing a vital role in the safety of MNPS’ staff and students, they’re in short supply. (It’s worth noting that MNPS is also short-staffed when it comes to bus drivers and other positions.) Spokesperson Braisted tells the Scene that as of Oct. 1, 30 schools were sharing nurses. Nurses are not MNPS employees, but rather contracted through the Metro Health Department. Prior to the pandemic and into this year, there haven’t been nurses in every school. But it’s a project that Lisa Nistler, school health program manager for Metro Health, has been working on for years. She says she’s been able to leverage CARES Act funding to put more nurses in schools.
“Now we are [in] full-on expansion,” Nistler says. “We need to have a nurse in every school ... and then also have an extra nurse in four of the largest high schools … as well as a permanent float team to cover absences.” Nistler says the district needs an additional 15 nurses to fully staff the schools, plus another 13 for additional support.
While school staff has been working to provide safe learning environments, the remainder of the school year will likely see hundreds if not thousands more students and staff test positive for COVID-19 or quarantine at home. Braisted says two staff members have already died from COVID-19 during this school year. The rate of transmission could decrease now that Pfizer is close to releasing a vaccination for kids ages 5 to 11. Plus, the FDA recently amended its emergency use authorization of Pfizer vaccine boosters to include teachers and other high-risk populations, which Ford was hoping for.
“I just would love to see more vaccinations,” says Ford. “I want to see more teachers with the booster and more kids [who are] old enough to get vaccinated.”