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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Sixth grade teacher Melanie Raybon gathers her students in the cafeteria at Orchard Knob Middle School. Orchard Knob Middle School started the 2021-2022 school year under a Hamilton County Schools system wide mask mandate on August 9, 2021, because of the surge in the Delta variant of the Coronavirus.

This story was updated at 6:56 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

Hamilton County kids returned to school Thursday.

You probably heard something about it. Heck, if you are walking, talking, masked or not, you certainly have an opinion about it, too.

At 10:05 p.m. Wednesday — less than nine hours before I took my HCS middle schooler to his first day — parents received an 80-word email linked to a 137-second video.

Sure, the news channels and our website had details about the announcement in the middle of the afternoon, but this has been a hot-button issue since the delta variant. Heck, the Hamilton County Schools Twitter account told parents around 6 p.m. to check their emails.

The gist of the messages was, effective from day one, HCS staff members are required to wear a mask indoors. Starting Monday, masks will be required for all students, but a parental opt-out option is available. There's no word on whether a staff member's parent can opt out at this point.

Seriously, if this feels hollow, it's not because of the brevity of the message or the 11th-hour delivery.

It's hollow because as the leadership questions grow around our school system — remember Bryan Johnson's last day as superintendent is Tuesday — this plan is short on guidance and plagued by the cardinal sin of leadership: If you try to please everyone, you will please no one.

This is a mask mandate that is not completely a mandate of any kind in a conversation that Johnson rightly described as overly political in his emailed video.

It's an announcement to wear a mask if you want, or don't if you so choose. It's, at best, an attempt to play both sides of the fence and, possibly at worst, a move to get as many fannies as possible in classroom seats during the first 20 days of school. Let's not forget, gang, that enrollment in these first couple of weeks is what the state uses to allocate school funding.

The message reminds me of the days before text messages and kids trying to decipher emoji meanings, when we would pass a note to the girl in homeroom with the "Do you like me?" question and boxes for "Yes," "No" and "Maybe."

In the moment, we were all scared of "No," but in truth "Maybe" was always the worst answer. Sadly, that's the box our school district leadership has checked.

We have a mask mandate — kind of, but not really. And that's not even to scratch the surface of the Pandora's box the school system opens if parents will be allowed to pick and choose which school policies their children must follow or the ones they can "opt out" of in the coming days.

I know the leaders of our public school systems, our private schools and our universities have had as tough a job during the pandemic as anyone this side of health care workers.

There are few clear answers, and there are fewer easy answers.

But this one does not work, and it's easy to see.

We need a show of leadership, and it must come from our local school bigwigs and the school board we elected. The gasbags in Nashville do not know our needs, and trying to fit Chattanooga into the same box as Clarksville, Cookeville or Charleston is a waste of their time and our money.

I think we should start with a big-picture statement that centers on the most-unifying and accepted opinion: Our kids need to be in school and we need to think about their safety. The school board and Johnson have echoed this belief.

But from there, this mandate-that-is-not-a-mandate-because-it-is-optional plan betrays that sentiment.

Students, as well as teachers — until they are vaccinated  — should be masked. It's the baseline assumption for safety for our students, just like having student resource officers and fire drills.

And, even in an overly politicized discussion like this one, playing both sides of the fence is offering zero steps in terms of leadership.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.

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Jay Greeson
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