As the first day of school approaches with mixed community feedback concerning Williamson County Schools’ health and wellness guidelines, Superintendent Jason Golden reiterated this week that the district intends to start the year with masks encouraged rather than required.
“I want everyone to know that we have a lot of good professionals working on this. This is a team effort,” Golden said during a video released by the district on Tuesday. “We are recommending masks, and I know some folks wish that we required it. Our experience, based on last year, based on this summer, based on the CDC guidelines, based on what we’ve learned locally about vaccinations, about the hospitalizations, about the number of adults versus the number of children with positive cases — that whole package that we studied for so long — leads us to conclude that the most appropriate place to start is to recommend masks.”
Golden mentioned that this could change, but a mask requirement is not within his own authority and would require a vote by the WCS Board of Education. He noted in a radio interview on Wednesday that the district received about 1,500 mask exemption requests (out of about 40,000 total WCS students) last year, many of which came in the later months of the school year.
While Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has recently stated that mask requirement is a local decision, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton said Tuesday if school districts require masks or close schools, he will ask the governor for a special legislative session.
Golden believes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent guidelines regarding masking in schools includes a “distinct change” from those held by the agency through May, saying that where before the CDC “clearly recommended that schools require masks,” he now sees that “they talked about local conditions in their new guidance.”
According to its website, the CDC “recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” The guidance also states that schools “should work with local public health officials … to determine the prevention strategies needed in their area by monitoring levels of community transmission (i.e., low, moderate, substantial, or high) and local vaccine coverage, and use of screening testing to detect cases in K-12 schools.”
As of Wednesday, the Tennessee Department of Health reported that over 51% of Williamson County residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. As of Tuesday, Williamson County had 930 active COVID-19 cases, the latest result of a steady rise in cases since the single-digit reports of late June.
Additionally, Williamson Medical Center reported that, as of Monday, it had 22 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, seven of whom were in the critical care unit. According to the report, there were zero COVID-19 patients in the hospital on both June 5 and June 17, the only two times since the beginning of the pandemic. The hospital further noted that a “high percentage” of its current COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated.
While the COVID-19 vaccine is not required at WCS and will not be administered onsite, Golden said vaccinations have had a “positive impact” on the county and reminded the community that those who are fully vaccinated and symptom-free are exempt from quarantine requirements issued by the health department. Currently, those 12 years old and up are eligible for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.
“Vaccines are a big game changer, so we’ve learned from the CDC, the more vaccines that are accepted from folks, the better off the whole community is going to be,” Golden said on Wednesday.
He also shared that the schools will implement social distancing of 3 feet between individuals when possible, and students are not allowed on campus if they are sick — with any communicable illness, not just COVID-19 — according to board policy.
Golden stated that the district doesn’t know “how many folks will choose to wear masks,” but he wants those in the schools to honor people’s choice to wear one, not asking them to remove their masks for pictures or any other reason.
To read the full guidelines from WCS, visit www.WCS.edu/domain/1298.