KINGSPORT — Kingsport public school leaders in a 4-1 vote have extended a mask mandate with opt-out provisions through Oct. 19, keeping in place the same mandate that went into effect Aug. 31.
In addition, the Board of Education unanimously voted Tuesday night to add up to eight days of paid sick leave for employees who test positive for COVID-19. The sick days will be added retroactively from Aug. 2 and through Dec. 31, revising the original proposal of Chief Human Resources Officer Jennifer Guthrie.
Her plan would have required that employees taking advantage of the additional sick time have had a full COVID-19 vaccination to get the added sick days, also creating an incentive for employees who haven’t gotten the vaccine to do so.
The mask mandate extension drew a no vote from board Vice President Julie Byers, who said she doesn’t think the decrease in COVID cases among school staff and students was caused by the mask policy.
Byers also pointed out that many after-school activities and other public events, including college football games, had few mask wearers.
Assistant Superintendent of Administration Andy True said that about 26.3% of the district’s 7,700 students opted out of the mask mandate, with the higher percentage, 38.5%, opting out at Dobyns-Bennett High School.
True also said the number of positive results among students and staff reached a high of 577 for the month of August and had decreased to 272 by September thus are. Of those 577 in August, 507 were students and 70 staff, compared to 240 of the 272 in September being students and 32 being staff, True said.
In comparison, the former peaks had been 132 in November of 2020 and 120 in December of that year.
As for attendance since school started Aug. 2, True said that numbers were down about 3 percentage points systemwide compared to the last “normal” year without the COVID pandemic and its aftereffects. Attendance was 93.2% in August of this year compared to 96.14% in August of 2019.
Superintendent Jeff Moorhouse said students are counted absent if they don’t attend, and can’t learn virtually, unless they have a positive COVID test. He said Tennessee allows limited virtual learning for students who are isolated with the virus or quarantined because of exposure to a known positive person.
The mandate allows parents and guardians to opt out students from masks, and also allows school visitors, teachers and staff to opt out of masks.
As for the extra sick time, the board reached an informal consensus to take away any requirement to have a COVID vaccine before approving the eight extra days 5-0, with President Jim Welch, Byers and members Todd Golden, Melissa Woods and Brandon Fletcher voting yes.
Woods said mandatory vaccination to receive the sick time “gives me some heartburn” and that it likely could be bypassed by medical or religious exemptions. Woods said she’s for COVID vaccinations and got hers but didn’t like a penalty for not being vaccinated.
“To be frank, religious exemptions are very broad,” Guthrie responded to Woods.
Byers said people have valid reasons for not getting vaccinated, including women who are or may become pregnant. Some people with compromised immune systems are not recommended for the vaccines.
“Vaccinated people are having to wear masks and they’ve also getting COVID,” Byers said of “breakthrough” cases.
Golden said “natural” immunity from a past positive case could protect people. “I’m getting my third shot tomorrow. I’m in favor of vaccines,” Golden said.
Welch said he was, too, and that he would like to incentivize employees to get the vaccine. In addition, he said President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring most employee have the vaccine or get weekly COVID testing could become very expensive for the school system if it stands up against legal challenges.
Guthrie said the sick days are only for employees who test positive, not for employees caring for a spouse, child or other family member who tests positive. She said the eight days, coupled with a weekend, would cover the 10 days of isolation for a positive case.
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BLOUNTVILLE — The annual household hazardous waste collection event will take place Saturday at Sullivan Central Middle School.
If you have leftover cleaning products, pesticides and aerosol cans, now’s your chance to dispose of them safely by coming to the middle school between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.
You do not need to live in the county to participate, there is no cost, and an appointment isn’t necessary.
“This is an excellent opportunity ... for citizens to dispose of household hazardous waste properly,” said David Salyers, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. “The COVID pandemic affected collections last year, and we are eager to provide the service again at sites across the state in the coming weeks.”
Household hazardous waste materials are considered flammable, toxic, reactive and/or corrosive and should not be placed with regular garbage.
Typical items to dispose of include cleaning fluids, pesticides, mercury thermometers and thermostats, fluorescent lamps, lithium and button batteries, aerosols, adhesives, medications, brake fluid, swimming pool chemicals, paint thinner and used needles in sturdy containers.
Items not accepted include ammunition, explosives, alkaline batteries, paint, electronics and any empty containers that should be disposed of in normal trash.
Christy Fitzgerald, recycling coordinator for Sullivan County, said paint would not be accepted at this event. Oil-based paint is accepted at Sullivan County’s two transfer stations every day, while latex paint — as long as it’s dried out — can be thrown out in the garbage as normal, Fitzgerald said.
Since the program’s inception in 1993, more than 360,000 Tennessee households have properly disposed of more than 23 million pounds of material.
There have been more than 1,400 one-day collection events.
When transporting materials to the site, place containers in sturdy boxes lined with newspaper to prevent spills and cross-contamination in the trunk of a car or back of a truck. Be sure to keep materials away from children and pets.
For more information on the household hazardous waste collection service, call (800) 287-9013.
By MATTHEW LANE
BLOUNTVILLE — The Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office is mourning the loss of another member in its ranks.
Detective Sgt. Josh Stewart died Monday evening due to complications from COVID-19, according to a release from the sheriff’s office. Stewart leaves behind a wife and two children.
“Our hearts are broken as we are faced with the loss of another one of our own,” the release states.
Stewart joined the SCSO in 2008 as a corrections officer. He later moved to the Patrol Division and eventually the Criminal Investigations Division. He was promoted to the rank of sergeant in CID in September 2020.
“Stewart was a friend to many here at the SCSO. He was known for being loyal and dependable, with a sense of humor that kept us laughing,” the release states. “When responding to calls, he was often able to de-escalate a tense situation simply by his calm presence and ability to put people at ease. The impact of this loss cannot be measured.”
Stewart is the second member of the SCSO to die of COVID within the past two months.
Deputy Roger Mitchell passed away due to COVID-19 complications on Aug. 24. According to a release from the SCSO, Mitchell contracted COVID-19 during the course of his duties as a corrections officer assigned to the transportation division.