SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. (WMC) - Shelby County officials reiterated Tuesday that the decision on how schools should open up this fall is being left to individual districts in Shelby County, with no mandate or one-size-fits-all approach.
Officials also said the level of infection in the community would not be enough to compel districts to go all virtual, under the guidance of a “tripwire” document that is nearing completion and not yet available for public view. The county’s health officer, Dr. Bruce Randolph, said the document should be completed this week.
The “tripwire” document was a recommendation of federal officials who visited the county in early July to combat rising rates of COVID-19 infection.
The federal team noted in their report that the county’s logistical makeup with multiple municipalities and a county government could make policy decisions difficult, and it necessitated a set of pre-determined shutdown conditions, agreed upon by all stakeholders.
“The tripwire document talks about numbers that are much more than where we are right now, so it does not come into play,” said Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.
Shelby County added 528 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, as the Shelby County Health Department said labs continue to see delays in processing test results.
But county leaders said that amount of cases is far from the level that would require schools county-wide to stay physically shuttered this fall. The figure that would trigger such an action wasn’t provided.
“We are nowhere near those in terms of data and data to be used to drive decisions,” said Dr. Bruce Randolph, Shelby County Health Officer.
Shelby County Schools announced Monday the district would start the 2020 school year virtual and remain virtual until further notice. None of the other six municipal districts in the county have decided to operate exclusively virtual.
“There are no good choices. There are no good options,” said Harris. “And so what you can do is try as best you can to understand the data and make informed decisions and trust the leadership.”
Harris said Tuesday there is no mandate from the county to the school districts, and the decision lies with the districts themselves.
“That means from time to time different school systems and their leadership will come to different conclusions. But there are no right answers,” he said.
Randolph indicated schools with in-person instruction should be able to quickly contact trace should a student or staff member fall ill. Randolph also said municipal school leaders should study virus transmission in their area of the county to gauge risk as they reopen.
“Make your decisions based on the current data countywide and within your municipalities,” he said.
Randolph indicated the exponential growth of the virus has been blunted because of masking mandates in late June and early July and a public compliance with them.
“We believe that wearing masks or facial coverings have had a great impact on our rate of transmission,” he said.
Graduate public health students at The University of Memphis conducted an observational study to examine masking. In 20 retail settings, they found mask usage pre-mandates at 51%. After they were enacted, usage climbed to 92%.
The group also studied masking in outdoor public spaces like the Highland Strip and Beale Street by watching MPD’s surveillance cameras. The students concluded before the mandates, masking never exceeded 60%, and after then, it hit 67%.
The study noted that most people observed by video were not wearing the mask properly, and the outdoor spaces provided an area for masking improvement.