It's too soon to give Tennessee and Georgia governors the benefit of a doubt for coming around to seeing their mistakes on school masking and remote learning.
But when Tennessee education Commissioner Penny Schwinn acknowledged Monday that school districts affected by surging COVID-19 outbreaks will be able to move schools to remote learning "by submitting waiver applications" to the state, things were looking up.
Not that a number of districts — including five schools in the Hamilton County district — were not already temporarily shifting to remote. Of course they were — and with plenty of parental insistence, seeing as 155 Hamilton County school employees and 4,575 students on Tuesday were either reporting COVID-19 cases or were in quarantine for exposures to the highly contagious and dangerous virus. Exposures that mostly happened at school.
Hamilton County wasn't alone. In Southeast Tennessee, Cleveland City Schools closed Thursday and Friday, Sequatchie and Polk county schools are closed all this week, and two schools in Bledsoe County were closed. We're sure more will join them. After all, researchers from Johns Hopkins University last week ranked Tennessee sixth in the country for new COVID-19 cases per capita, and Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said children make up 36% of Tennessee's reported cases.
Let us repeat that. More than a third of Tennessee's active COVID-19 cases are among children.
So, yes, even before Schwinn decided to issue a state "mea culpa," our school systems were in effect saying something like, 'Uhh, we're closing and going virtual, thank you — figure out how to gracefully accept this.' Previously the state had said it no longer allows districts to move to remote or hybrid learning.
Schwinn told reporters in a virtual news conference (the schools couldn't go remote but the state education department could?) that districts already moving or moved to remote learning will be able to request the waivers retroactively.
Meanwhile, with the delta variant of the virus rolling over the South like four or five Hurricane Idas, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is calling up another raft of National Guard soldiers to help with COVID response. This time, he's calling up as many as 1,500.
More than 5,600 COVID patients are hospitalized across the Peach State and more than 92% of ICU beds are in use. Tennessee is using about 93% of its ICU beds, according to the state's Tennessee COVID-19 Hospital Resource Status web page.
But, no, don't give either Kemp or Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee too much credit for coming to their senses.
Both declined over and over to issue statewide mask mandates and even, in effect, banned them. Both have repeatedly rattled their sabres — along with state lawmakers — at schools wanting to move to remote classes and at businesses requiring employees to be vaccinated.
Lee even doubled down to say he didn't support vaccine messaging to teens and children, and he supported the firing of the state's top vaccine expert who promoted that messaging. Kemp signed his own version of red-state stubbornness last week in an executive order that lets businesses disregard local rules: "Local governments will not be allowed to force businesses to be the city's mask police, the vaccine police or any other burdensome restriction that will only lead to employees being let go, revenue tanking and businesses closing their doors," he said.
In Georgia, it is employers who are just saying no. Case in point: Atlanta-based Delta Airlines told its 68,000 employees to vax up or pay with their wallets a $200 monthly surcharge for health insurance.
And in Tennessee, parents got some help in mid-August, just days after Lee's "opt-out" school masking order, from President Biden who made it clear he will take on red state governors who are standing in the way of school and local leaders' COVID protection efforts.
That same day, Biden's Education Secretary, Miguel A. Cardona, sent letters to eight states, including one addressed to Lee and Schwinn. The letter stated Tennessee's actions "may infringe upon a school district's authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by federal law."
On Monday, Biden's Education Department followed through and opened civil rights investigations into five Republican-led states: Tennessee, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah. Cardona said the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions, and he accused the states of "putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve."
Also Monday, the parents of disabled Tennessee children with serious illnesses took their own action, asking a federal judge in Memphis to block Lee's "opt-out" mask order, arguing that it endangers children with health conditions and hurts their ability to attend in-person classes.
We might add, it endangers children with ordinary health issues, as well. Along with their parents, and their grandparents and anyone else to whom they spread this virus. In Hamilton County on Tuesday, health officials counted 457 new COVID-19 cases in one day. This virus is not disappearing, and it grows more dangerous every day.