Tennessee offers guidance to schools on re-entry as state sees uptick in cases, testing delays

Gov. Bill Lee gives COVID-19 update in Tennessee -- July 8

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee joined state health and education officials Wednesday to discuss the ongoing COVID-19 fight and how the state’s schools plan to safely reopen in the fall.

Wednesday saw the state’s largest single-day increase of cases so far with the Tennessee Department of Health reporting 2,472 new cases -- 650 more than the previous record set July 3.

Lee said the new record is a result of processing a record number of tests -- more than 29,000 -- over a 24-hour period.

The governor said a surge in testing is affecting the state’s ability to quickly process tests and notify recipients.

Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said it’s a nationwide issue with some people seeing delays of seven, 10 and even 12 days before receiving their results.

“That’s unacceptable,” said Piercey, adding patients can’t get back to work and contact tracing can’t begin when results are delayed.

She attributed the lag to a number of reasons, including supply chain issues, increasing demand and even labs prioritizing tests of high-risk individuals, health care workers and hospitalized patients.

“Don’t avoid a test just because you are a lower priority from one of these labs,” said Piercey. “It is still critically important that we have everybody who needs or wants a test to get one, but just know that that may be a cause for additional delay.”

Piercey said Tennessee is trying to address delays by monitoring lab turnaround times and directing samples to labs with more capacity and shorter turnaround.

Lee said Tennesseans have answered the call to get tested for COVID-19 with nearly one million tested so far. Now the state is asking Tennesseans to wear masks.

“A mask isn’t just a way to protect you and your family, it’s a way to protect Tennessee’s economy,” said Lee. “And we need buy in.”

Last week, the governor signed an executive order giving county mayors the authority to issue their own mask mandates. Lee asked residents to embrace a new habit of mask wearing.

“Not only do facial coverings help us reduce transmission of the virus, they help keep our businesses open and help us get back to the activities that make us feel normal and that we all love and enjoy,” said Piercey.

Piercey and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn spoke at the White House Tuesday about reopening schools.

“It was a tremendous honor to be in Washington yesterday, it was our first time at the White House,” said Schwinn. “And I think that one of the things that struck me was the number of people from all parts of the country who were there in one space to talk about the importance of our children.”

Schwinn said the Tennessee Department of Education’s priority is making sure students and staff are safe and that students get access to a high-quality education.

The department spent two months putting together tool kits and other guidance for districts as they face reopening during a pandemic. Among the resources is an online tool that will provide a year’s worth of instruction for various forms of learning, including remote, in-person and hybrid models.

Schwinn referenced $50 million in technology grants that will pay for a third of the cost of computers for every third grader through 12th grader in the state, calling it “a massive investment that completely changes the access and opportunities for students whether they are in rural communities, urban communities or suburban communities.”

“Districts are super hard at work over the next coming weeks,” said Schwinn, noting a July 24 deadline for a plan in case remote learning is necessary.

Lee thanked teachers and superintendents who are facing uncharted territories, but he said they are stepping up to the challenge.

“Together we can create a safe opening for our teachers and our children,” said Lee.

Piercey, a pediatrician, is also a mother to four children, three of whom are still in high school.

“This is a very real issue to me as well,” said Piercey. “I not only personally want to know that my children are going to be safe, but I want to make sure your children are safe.”

Piercey said while children don’t often need hospitalization or die from the virus, the pandemic and school closures have had an impact on their emotional and social well being.

“All of you like me that have children that have been in school know that this has been a struggle,” said Piercey. “Our kids that are normally happy-go-lucky and really interactive and social have really missed their friends, they’ve really missed their teachers, and they’ve gone through a grief process too. So we know that it’s very important to get them back into the classroom.”

She said the American Academy of Pediatrics is strongly encouraging schools to have a goal of getting back into the classroom when the new year begins, but they know one size does not fit all right now.

“We’re learning a lot about this virus and we’re learning a lot about this response, and that requires flexibility,” said Piercey. “We encourage districts to be flexible but to also be transparent. You don’t have to have all the answers. It’s OK to be uncertain about some things as long as you have an overarching framework of how you’re going to do this.”

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