SCS Supt. Dr. Joris M. Ray welcomes NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson’s support of the district’s push to “REIMAGINE a HEALTHIER 901!” (Photo: SCS Twitter)

by Curtis Weathers —

TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers

Many of you I’m sure were like me when the corona virus vaccines started to come online.  

I remember thinking how fortunate we were as a nation and how wonderful it will be when our schools return to some semblance of normalcy.

I never for once, however, thought we would have the kind of pushback and resistance from the anti-vaccine crowd that we have now.  

It would be nice if we could focus our time and energies on celebrating a return to the classroom with in-person learning, and a greater sense of normalcy.  But instead, we have the coronavirus and its deadly offspring, the Delta variant, raging across our city, state and nation, and we, the adults in the room, are again fighting each other more vigorously than we are the virus. 

Our children seem to be in greater danger now than they were before the vaccines became available.

Despite the uptick in cases, our governor and the [mostly Republican] members of the Tennessee General Assembly continue to display their outright incompetence in leading the fight against this pandemic. 

They show a complete lack of concern for what is actually happening on the ground and the devastation that is occurring in our state and across the nation. 

They are working feverishly to prevent school systems in our state from implementing the two most effective methods for keeping our educators and children safe ⸺ the wearing of masks and returning to virtual learning. 

The Gov. Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt-out of mask mandates in schools is both shortsighted and reckless. 

We know that in-person learning is more effective than virtual learning when it comes to educating our children.  But we also know that during this current surge of the virus, in-person learning poses more risk to our children’s health and safety than does virtual learning.  

Our children are our most precious possessions. Yet, while there have been some 657,000 COVID-19-related deaths recorded in this country alone, we somehow still want to debate the importance of doing all we can to protect them from this deadly disease. 

Every day we hear about another school or school system closing down because so many of its children and teachers are getting sick with the COVID-19 virus. 

Tennessee is ranked sixth in the country in new cases per capita, and one-third (36 percent) of COVID-19 cases in our state are children.

Things are so bad that the Shelby County Health Department is now calling for universal masking in all K-12 schools, preschools and daycare centers, for teachers, staff, students, and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. 

The governor’s executive order, however, makes that pronouncement somewhat null and void. 

Dr. James Downing, resident and CEO of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, in a letter to Lee, urged him to rethink his position on mask mandates, which the governor continues to steadfastly oppose. 

Downing made it clear “that the debate over wearing masks is not a political issue — it’s about protecting people in a pandemic.” 

In addition, he said the governor’s executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of masks mandates in schools “is a bad idea that will hurt the community.” 

Downing went on to say that if we continue to let unmasked children go to school, the outcome is predictable. Children and teachers, and then their family members and more, will get sick. Schools will be forced to close. Parents will need to stay home. The economy will suffer. Most heartbreaking, we will see an increase in the number of deaths from COVID-19.” 

The Shelby County government has filed one of the two lawsuits, the other by parents, in federal court against the governor over his stance on mask mandates via his executive order and there is mounting resistance over the state’s restrictions on districtwide virtual learning.

Right now, thousands of parents have opted their children out of mask mandates in their schools, and those children are sitting in classrooms, walking the halls of their schools, and socializing with other students without the protection of a mask. 

The results, of course, are predictable, as we are now seeing. 

Make no mistake about it, the governor’s position is not about the safety and well-being of the citizens of Tennessee and certainly not the children in our schools, but about servicing his own selfish political agendas.  Nothing else.

I want to continue to encourage the adults out there to take responsibility and do the right thing for our children. If your child is 12 years or older, they are eligible to get vaccinated and should do so as soon as possible.  

They also should wear their masks as instructed. Unfortunately, for the time being, there is no vaccine for children under 12. 

If you have children in your home and you, the parent or guardian, are not vaccinated, and you are opposed to mask mandates, you are putting your children’s lives at risk (unnecessarily) and the lives of all whom they come in contact with. 

Keep in mind, the Labor Day weekend will surely introduce a new wave of infections in our schools and community.  We need to reject all of the lies out there, pay attention to the truth, and come together as a community. 

I will leave you with yet again the profound words of St. Jude’s CEO, Dr. James Downing who in his letter to Governor Lee reminded us all that, “Too many of our kids still die from cancer and other diseases we’ve yet to fully understand despite decades of incredible progress. But, as a caring community, we have the power to keep them from dying simply because they went to school.”

Stay safe, people!

(Curtis Weathers is the education columnist for The New Tri-State Defender.)