Note: This story was updated at 1:45 p.m. with comments from the superintendent.
A group of Hamilton County parents and Tennessee doctors are calling on the Hamilton County school board and county Mayor Jim Coppinger to issue a temporary mask mandate for local schools in the face of political pressure to do otherwise.
During a Monday morning news conference, three local parents said school officials should follow the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which say all children and adults in schools should be wearing masks.
Children under 12 are ineligible for vaccines, and teen vaccine rates are low, as the delta variant causes a surge of cases and hospitalizations.
Stacie Teague Smith, a parent of four children in local schools, said the spread of the delta variant and the lack of precautions in schools will hurt families.
"It feels inevitable that our family will face multiple quarantines," she said. "How are working parents supposed to manage? We can't rely on grandparents or others with such a dangerous virus and how much time off will our employers allow? How do we cope with weeks of lost wages? How many ten-day quarantines until we lose our jobs?"
Public schools will open for the first full day in Hamilton County on Thursday, and in recent weeks Hamilton County Schools has maintained it will recommend but not require masks.
Asked for an update on that position Monday, Superintendent Bryan Johnson said the district is still gathering information.
"This has become way too political a conversation," he said. "We have to be true to what science is saying and try to understand that. So we hope to have an update. We're still trying to gather and understand, we see it on both sides.
"When you make a recommendation that's as controversial as masks have become, you want to be really thoughtful about how you approach that, thoughtful about how you get input and really make sure that it's the right decision and it's being approached in the right way. So we're really showing a lot of deference to medical professionals, and trying to get insight from them, and our local community.
"I'm not just talking about, you know, national doctors, also our local community that have context and understand what we're dealing with here locally as well as the health department to make the best decision for our community."
Some state leaders, including Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, have said masking policies are set at the local level, but other politicians, such as Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, have said the state may take action if school systems impose mandates or segregate students based on vaccination status.
Fears about closing schools again are being driven, in part, by data released last week by the Tennessee Department of Education that showed testing scores across the state declined by 5 percentage points during the shutdowns.
Some Tennessee school systems, including Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools, are requiring masks despite political pressures against the move.
Dr. Jason Martin, a critical care doctor in Sumner County, said school boards have the authority and the obligation to do everything possible to protect young people. Education officials need to put people before politics, he said.
"On behalf of health care professionals across the state of Tennessee, we wanted to share with you that we are offended that the Hamilton County school board and that Mayor Coppinger would try to make this a political issue," Martin said. "This is not red or blue. This is science. This is not about anything other than protecting children."
Hamilton County was under a mask mandate for 10 months until Coppinger opted not to renew it in April because of the availability of vaccines. However, the county has struggled with vaccinating residents, especially younger people, which has frustrated local politicians including Coppinger.
At the moment, people ages 12 and older are eligible for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the COVID-19 vaccines sometime this month for safe use, which has been reported as a sticking point for some hesitant to receive a dose. The vaccines currently available have been shown to be safe and effective but are under an emergency use authorization from the federal government.
The delta variant, which is creating a surge in local hospitalizations and cases, is not necessarily more dangerous to children but more children are being affected since the variant is highly contagious and people under 18 are either ineligible for vaccines or have low vaccine uptake. State officials have warned about children's hospitals reaching capacity with more COVID-19 infections, as well as increases in other respiratory viruses.
Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.
Staff writer Ricky Young contributed to this report.