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Tennessee governor ignores CDC guidance on COVID-19 testing in reopened schools

Gov. Bill Lee blames a lack of testing capacity
Gov. Bill Lee news conference.jpeg
Posted at 7:33 PM, Aug 06, 2020
and last updated 2021-01-27 00:13:18-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, while insisting that he's relying on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in pushing schools to reopen, admitted Thursday his administration will ignore other recommendations for how to do that safely.

Lee said the state just does not have the testing capacity to follow CDC guidelines for testing students and teachers who may be exposed to COVID-19 after in-person learning resumes.

"With the resources and the limitations that we have, we are developing the best strategy to go forward, accepting and following the CDC guidelines to the degree we can," Lee said in response to questions from NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Under CDC recommendations titled "Preparing for a Safe Return to School," the nation's top infectious disease experts say students should be kept with the same group of classmates, called a cohort, to make contact tracing easier in case of an infection.

"If a student, teacher or staff member tests positive for SARS-CoV-2, those in the same cohort/group should also be tested and remain at home until receiving a negative test result or quarantine," the CDC's reopening guidance says.

Related: Governor ignores scientific consensus as he pushes Tennessee schools to re-open

The Lee administration's plan would require students or teachers to remember whether they had been within six feet of an infected person for more than 10 minutes.

In those cases, those individuals -- and only those individuals -- would be required to quarantine for 14 days.

Lee's plan does not anticipate any effort to test other members of the class, as suggested by the CDC.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Lee, "If we do not have the capacity to follow CDC guidelines, how can we safely reopen schools?"

"Well, we follow the guidelines to the extent we think that's possible," the governor answered.

"Turnaround time in testing, obviously, creates a real challenge for congregate settings like schools."

We followed up, "If you do not have the ability to follow CDC guidelines, how can you say you are safely reopening schools?"

Lee responded, "The CDC also says that the best way for kids to learn, that we should have in-person learning. That's their guidance, as well."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates reminded him that the question was about testing everyone in the classroom.

"They give a number of guidelines," Lee answered. "As I said, we follow - to the degree it is at all possible - we follow guidelines to move forward with what we think is best for our state."

With classes resuming, districts are already struggling with how to respond to the emergence of new cases.

In Williamson County, the start of in-person classes at Chapman's Retreat Elementary in Spring Hill has been delayed after a person who works in the front office tested positive.

The rest of the front office staff has been quarantined.

In Marshall County, the director of schools confirmed that a football player at Forrest High School in Chapel Hill tested positive in late July.

But in that case, families were not told, he said, because the player did not show symptoms until two days after his last practice.

Infectious disease experts say infected individuals can spread the virus before they show symptoms.

Also in Marshall County, a staff member at Delk-Henson Intermediate School was exposed to someone with COVID, but she was allowed to return to school wearing a mask without having to be tested.

"What we are doing is constantly changing every day," the director of schools, Jacob Sorrells, said.

"We are trying to do the best we can with what we have."

Lee has been pushing schools to reopen with in-person learning as soon as possible.

That's despite recommendations from CDC's Dr. Robert Redfield, White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Deborah Birx, the American Academy of Pediatrics and experts from Harvard that the spread of COVID-19 needs to be brought under control first.