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Crunching school COVID numbers

The following is an opinion from WCSA editor-in-chief Jeffery Simmons on Friday’s latest news


Let’s talk numbers – it seems to be the popular thing and it may even get you elected alderman one day.

For months, there was a debate after COVID-19 shut down mostly everything in the spring about the proper amount of people who could be together at one time. The first number was 10. It’s bumped up some over the coming months, but 1,900 people – the size of the WCHS student body – together in one spot? I’m sure people would be OK with it if it was in Neyland Stadium (which holds – but rarely entertains – 102,455 people). In a school that probably fits 1,901 people – it was ALWAYS going to be a problem with spreading sickness – and, more so, causing quarantines due to close contact tracing.

Let’s take a quick look at the last three months in Warren County really quick:

Sept. 22 – The Warren County School Board votes unanimously to leave the hybrid program and return kids to school (Previously, kids were attending two days of class per week based on their last name and either going Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday).

Oct. 12 – Students return to school in full class rooms four days a week (Friday has been teachers only at schools all semester)

Nov. 11 – Director of Schools Grant Swallows announces, beginning Nov. 12, WCMS and WCHS would go virtual and return back after Thanksgiving break. Athletics at both schools are shut down for eight days (aside from a cheerleading event WCHS was still able to attend during the down time).

Nov. 30 – WCMS and WCHS students return to school

Dec. 11 – WCMS and WCHS students are told they’ll be back virtual next week (Dec. 14 -18) and ALL county athletics are shut down until Jan. 4 (assuming cheerleading will be included this time).

So before WCMS and WCHS could even complete one month of in-person learning after moving off the hybrid plan, they had to go virtual. They came back Nov. 30 (for half a day due to snow), stayed home Dec. 1 (snow, again) then had six days in the classrooms before they were told to go back home.

C’mon people – what are we doing here?

It feels like the most sensible thing – at least from an outsider – is to go back to the one (and only) thing that seemed to work. The hybrid schedule from the first nine weeks wasn’t marred by a high number of isolated students (AKA, those who test positive for COVID-19) and it certainly wasn’t producing quarantine numbers that currently have almost 10 percent of a HEALTHY student body at home.

So I wanted to know – do people regret voting to go back to school like they did in September?

“I don’t regret going away from the hybrid system,” said Swallows when I asked Friday afternoon. “I’m not sure it was working instructionally like we needed it to. I’m not sure we were where we needed it to be – kids were having a hard time.

“The reason for no regret is we had to do something different. We had to get the kids back in the classroom.”

No regrets ran through the board.

“I don’t think we rushed it. It’s a matter of having a lot of students in close proximity,” said school board member Tanya Bess. “I think about this a lot – what if this had happened in the 80s (when I was in school)? What would we have done as a school system? Think of the progress we’ve made to have 1-2 schools go remote and the rest go normal.

“(The hybrid model) is always on the back of my mind. It’s an idea that has been talked around. But with the traditional hybrid, teachers were killing themselves because they were teaching two different programs. Kids need to be in school – and we have to think of our educators. They’re a top priority as well. Another form of hybrid – I would love it, but I don’t know the solution right now.”

Fellow school board member James Bennett pointed out he was against hybrid from the start – he preferred remote learning when school began this semester.

“I wanted to remote from the beginning. We had 3-4 different scenarios – remote and hybrid were there. The key factor (when we voted to return off hybrid) was the numbers were down,” said Bennett. “We’re a rural community – everybody counts. Students, teachers, nurses, bus drivers, custodians, cookes – everybody counts. I said it at a board meeting – the worst thing that could happen is a death of a teacher or a death of a child.

“It scares me – it still scares me now.”

Bennett’s sentiment hits home. I think we can all agree – no matter how we want students educated or where we want them learning – nobody wants people to get sick and die. I even like to think nobody here is TRYING to get people sick – particularly our youth.

If we could erase COVID-19 from Warren County tomorrow, we’d all do it. Matt Turner would get us all at Nunley Stadium and we’d send this disease back where it came from empty-handed – just like Cookeville when it left back in September after we rocked them on homecoming.

That right now isn’t an option, so we’re left to make tough choices. Left to research. Left to debate. And we’re all getting used to crunching numbers and wonder where the threshold is to say, “enough is enough.”

Depending on where you stand on the political scale, Dr. Anthony Fauci is a near mythical being or a complete quack. To me, he’s the person most easily referenced when discussing infectious diseases because everybody has heard of him.

In the last month, Dr. Fauci has talked about the importance of keeping schools open. When the go-to line for most decision makers is “we follow the experts,” Warren County seems to be zigging when others are zagging.

Again, I wanted to know why.

“(WCMS and WCHS) are two problem areas for us. We did this at Thanksgiving. There’s just not a lot of opportunity to distance. Rapidly is what concern me – rapid spread. We went from 46 to 76 (isolated students) in three days. Obviously there is a concern at those two schools,” said Swallows. “Furthermore, our older students are more capable of learning remotely. They’re doing a better job logging in and teachers are better at holding classes.”

I’m not Zach Sutton or Everett Brock when it comes to math, but I can grasp the Swallows’ rapid-spread comment. Going from 46 to 76 in three days means the school system added 30 new positive tests. That can also be said the school system saw 10 new positives per days. Let’s make it even bigger – Warren County schools had a 65 percent increase in 72 hours!

It’s fun talking numbers – you can make them sound really scary, really quickly. I’ve seen plenty of media outlets – including local ones – churn out numbers and percentages to make people’s eyes get wide.

You can also do this with numbers though: Swallows said 70 percent of the current cases were at two schools. That means 53 kids are positive at WCMS or WCHS, schools which have about 2,600 students. That means those schools have a two percent positive rate. It’s double the entire school system (of 1 percent), but still, two percent seems pretty managed in the grand scheme of things.

Here’s another number: Zero. From what I can gather from multiple sources, that’s how many students in Warren County have been hospitalized after testing positive for COVID-19. With around 6,600 students in Warren County, having zero hospitalized is a GREAT number.

That’s a number I’d like to see people quote more.


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