Knox County education and health leaders answer questions at PTA virtual town hall

Parents were able to submit questions to Dr. Martha Buchanan and Superintendent Bob Thomas.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. —
While the first COVID-19 vaccine shipment made its way to Knoxville, parents had questions about what would come next. For example, they wondered if students should be required to get it.

They raised this question to the Knox County Health Department and Knox County Schools during a virtual town hall on Thursday. Both essentially said that students would not be required to be vaccinated.

“Whether or not to vaccinate is a choice for parents,” Buchanan said. “But what I’d like to say to parents is to go to a reliable source for your information.”

Superintendent Bob Thomas also answered the question. He said that vaccinating students would be a personal choice and that there was no requirement from KCS to be vaccinated right now.

However, he also said he would get the vaccine. 

“I will be participating and I hope teachers will do the same,” he said. 

Many participants in the virtual town hall also asked if the COVID-19 vaccine would be mandatory.

“That’s a decision on the federal level,” Buchanan said. “That’s not a local decision.”

Questions also loomed about the emotional health of students, which is a conversation school systems are grappling with nationwide. Doctors at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital said that the COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous for children’s mental health. 

“We understand that the pandemic has been emotional on our students,” Thomas said. 

He went on to explain the school initiatives, as well as the benefits they are getting from the state. 

The same question was also posed to Buchanan. 

“We don’t directly work with kids but we do know from our colleagues at the children’s hospital that visits for mental health issues are up,” she said.

She added that there are families who did choose for students to attend virtual school instead of in-person because it provided benefits for their families. To help children’s mental health, Buchanan recommended parents tune out the noise, limit the bad news and having open conversations with their kids.

One of the biggest concerns regarding education during the pandemic has been learning loss.

“Math and reading are our concerns,” Thomas said. “40 percent of our third graders were proficient and that was before the pandemic.”

Thomas added they are already looking at how to make up knowledge students may have missed out on due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The conversation then shifted to parents. Attendees asked about how they are holding up during the pandemic and what resources they have. Thomas directed them to use their online resources and to contact the schools if they need further assistance.

“We have a help desk that’s been very responsive,” he said.

In closing, the question on everyone’s minds was posed: when will schools return to normal? Buchanan said is contingent upon a few very important points. 

“That depends, depends on the vaccine. In order for it to work it requires a large portion of our community to be vaccinated,” she said.

Janelle B. Smith

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