NASHVILLE — A video shared Tuesday by the Tennessee Department of Education celebrating the return to school drew sharp criticism across social media.
The 41-second video features education commissioner Penny Schwinn, who shares her own memories of excitedly starting school as a kindergartner.
“All of our students — 1 million of them — across the state of Tennessee are starting the school year right now,” Schwinn said. “The smell of new books, clean hallways, the energy and feeling of being back in classrooms with their friends and their teachers. It’s such a special time, and I am so excited for our state.”
She then asked parents to share stories about why they are excited for the new school year in the comments.
The video received swift feedback from parents and teachers experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, quarantines and a growing number of schools already closing as the virus spreads. As of Wednesday, Tennessee was averaging a record-setting 2,330 infections per day among school-age children, age 5 to 18, according to state data.
“How tone deaf do you have to be to ask parents to ‘share their stories’?” commenter Joshua Allen said on Facebook. “Are you that clueless as to what’s really happening in TN schools? Or do you just not care? This is a nightmare.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee recently issued an executive order requiring K-12 schools to allow parents to opt-out of face mask mandates. Some of the state’s largest school districts, including Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools, have kept their mask mandates despite Lee’s order.
Lee’s order is now part of a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. Investigators are working to determine if Tennessee’s new rule discriminates against students who are at a heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Several commenters said they sent their children back to school after spending the last 18 months being careful and avoiding the virus — only to have their children exposed or infected within a few weeks. Other pointed to the deaths of teachers who they say got COVID-19 while teaching.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the education department had disabled new comments on the video on Facebook and Twitter.
A spokesperson for the department did not return a request for a comment Wednesday.
‘Stop acting like things are OK’
While a few positive comments were peppered into the reactions to the video, the majority across Facebook and Twitter were negative.
Twitter user Abby Mason chimed in, saying her daughter tested positive for COVID-19 10 days after returning to school.
“Stop acting like things are OK,” Mason said in a tweet. “For the lucky ones that have gotten to go to school every day, it’s been a mess. For those, like us that have had to FaceTime school with their child because they are isolated, it has been brutal. And, for those truly suffering, this is offensive.”
The reaction to the video comes as parents, doctors, pastors and health care experts call for universal masking in K-12 schools, especially as children under 12 are not yet able to be vaccinated.
President Joe Biden recently criticized Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for blocking mask mandates not only in schools, but statewide.
“Some governors aren’t willing to do the right things to make this happen,” Biden said last month. “I say to these governors, please help. If you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”
Teachers and parents in the comments added to the call for stricter COVID-19 safety measures and clear procedures in Tennessee schools. The state recently clarified its expectations for quarantine procedures, along with addressing confusion over whether schools are allowed to move classes online if needed.
“Happy talk isn’t going to keep our kids safely in school this year,” Alli Finney wrote on Twitter. “We need real policies in place to keep schools open with healthy kids. Testing, universal masking, vaccinations, ventilation.”
Find reporter Rachel Wegner on Twitter @rachelannwegner.