NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A woman who once served as Tennessee's top school nurse warns the state is failing to protect teachers who are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In particular, she cited Gov. Bill Lee's failure to follow all the federal guidance on ways to keep students and teachers safe.
That follows a recent report that concludes one out of every four teachers has a health condition that could put them at risk of serious illness if they contract the virus.
"We are asking teachers to go way beyond their scope of education in dealing with this pandemic - and I feel like the state has abandoned them in this situation," Christie Butler told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
Until she resigned back in February, Butler was Tennessee's school nurse consultant, the person school nurses from across the state would call for advice. She held that position for two and a half years.
"I don't want anybody to die from this virus," Butler said. "I don't want anybody to get this virus. It's horrible. It's the worst thing ever."
These days, she's battling COVID-19 herself, sometimes still fighting to breathe nine weeks after she first contracted the infectious disease.
"Any time I stand up, like going from one room to the other, my heart rate goes up to like 130s, 140s - and it takes about 10 minutes before it will actually calm back down once I sit down," Butler said.
But the school nurses and teachers still call her.
"They're scared," she recounted.
"Teachers are coming in earlier, they are staying later, sometimes until 9 and 10 o'clock at night. They are crying uncontrollably."
It's not a perspective that Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee shares.
"The vast majority of teachers in our state are looking forward to being in their classrooms," Lee insisted Tuesday during a news briefing.
The governor has repeatedly claimed that his administration follows the guidance of federal health authorities in pushing schools to reopen with in-person learning - at the same time, ignoring recommendations that communities must first reduce the rate of transmission to do it safely.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Butler, "You've heard the governor say that research shows the best place for a child is in the classroom."
"True, and I agree," she answered.
"The best place for the child to learn is in the classroom. However, it needs to be done safely. If it can't be done safely, then it doesn't need to be done. Lives are at stake."
A map, from the state's own website, shows all but four counties still have what Lee's team considers to be unacceptable rates of transmission.
Most of the school districts there are reopening anyway.
"Those kids leave the schools, and they go out into the community where all those numbers are," Butler said. "They are going to be bringing it right back into the school. You have to get those community numbers under control before they are back in school."
The governor has also claimed he's protecting teachers by distributing personal protective equipment.
His idea of PPE: masks made out of sock material, which are designed to keep the person wearing the mask from spreading the virus themselves.
"That piece of personal protective equipment is part of what we're providing," Lee told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
We noted, "The CDC says masks are not personal protective equipment. So when you say you're giving teachers PPE, that's not true, is it?"
"Actually, the CDC has applauded our efforts," Lee responded.
But we checked the CDC website, which makes it clear: face masks are "not appropriate substitutes for PPE."
In fact, Lee's own health department routinely puts out a tweet emphasizing that "my face covering protects you, your face covering protects me."
My face covering protects you. Your face covering protects me. Let's protect one another Tennessee. Learn more: https://t.co/XuXReFjdwl. [We'd love to feature you in one of these posts of real Tennesseans wearing a face covering! Reply with your selfie!] pic.twitter.com/Qd92vzFfvI— TN Dept. of Health (@TNDeptofHealth) August 18, 2020
There is zero evidence that the governor's sock masks will keep teachers from getting COVID-19 from children whose faces are not covered.
While the CDC does recommend that students be required to wear face masks to keep them from infecting other students and teachers, Lee insists on letting other people decide whether to follow those guidelines.
"We've given guidance for sixth grade and up for masks in school," the governor said
"But, for those kindergartners through sixth grade, we want parents to have the choice as to what their children do in those schools - and that's the guidance and suggestions that we've given the schools."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So it's OK, in your mind, for parents to put teachers at risk by not requiring their children to wear masks?"
His response: "I think it's OK, in my mind, to let parents make the decision about whether their 5-year-old should wear a mask to school."
What about older students?
"We've given guidance that we believe that school districts should have masks for sixth grade and up."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "But you don't require it, sir."
"That's right," he admitted. "I've been real clear about requirements and mandates versus the implementation of local leadership."
In fact, all across Tennessee, teachers are returning to classrooms where their local leadership has decided not to require masks.
"You have to follow the CDC guidelines, not picking and choosing which of those guidelines that you want," Christie Butler responded.
The former top school nurse worries that the state doesn't have a plan for what happens if lots of teachers start getting sick -- especially with substitute teachers being hard to come by.
"Filling a classroom full of 25 and 30 students at a time, you're just asking for a jump in numbers."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "What is your biggest fear?"
"My biggest fear," she said, "is that we are going to have teachers and we are going to have students who can't fight this virus or who end up disabled because of this."
"The biggest lie being peddled today is that our schools are safe. I have witnessed it first-hand."
Check out this perspective from an anonymous Tennessee teacher (whose identity I know). https://t.co/Lr1zGGKFFa
— Phil Williams (@NC5PhilWilliams) August 19, 2020
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