The Wilson County Schools board will again debate whether to require masks at its meeting Monday — a discussion that could be limited because of a lawsuit filed last month that alleges the district’s mask mandate last school year was unconstitutional.
WCS Director Jeff Luttrell told the board during its work session Thursday that COVID-19 cases were surging in the district. He cited a report from WCS Health Service Supervisor Chuck Whitlock that showed cases among those from birth to age 20 and the seven-day rolling average of new cases per 100,000 population skyrocketing. The seven-day rolling average is near 25 new cases per day per 100,000 population, a level that last year was considered to be in the “high risk” range. Twenty-five and above was deemed “critical.”
“I think we’re all concerned,” Luttrell said. “I’ve been in discussions with directors around the state — that talk is prevalent every day — and I’m hearing from people on both sides of the issue.”
He added that as director, his first priority is the safety of the students, staff and teachers in the district.
“We’re relying on federal, state and local guidance,” Luttrell said. “This is becoming difficult at the local level. We need everyone to come together.”
Currently, per board policy adopted in June, masks are optional.
Carrie Pfeiffer, Zone 1 board member, said she has had “significant and overwhelming” contacts from constituents wanting the district to address the mask issue.
However, Deputy Director Lauren Bush and board Chairman Larry Tomlinson cautioned against discussing the issue because of the lawsuit.
“I think it needs to be said,” Tomlinson said. “As long as we’re under this pending litigation, ladies and gentlemen there’s not a whole lot we can discuss about this.”
The lawsuit, filed June 7 by a six families, claims that last school year’s mask mandate infringes on their constitutional rights and that WCS had not been given authority by the General Assembly to issue a mask mandate.
It alleges numerous instances where the children of plaintiffs were bullied or punished for not wearing masks and where children got sick because they were required to wear a mask. The suit seeks class actions status, a prohibition on WCS mandating masks, and attorneys fees and costs.
The suit names as defendants the district, former Director Donna Wright, and board members Pfeiffer, Tomlinson, Bill Robinson and Linda Armistead. On May 3, those four voted against, thus killing, a motion to change the then mandate to “strongly encouraged.”
Mt. Juliet attorney John Tennyson filed the suit and is also one of the plaintiffs. He did not respond by deadline to a request for comment made Friday afternoon. WCS spokesman Bart Barker said the district would not have a comment on pending litigation. Board attorney Mike Jenning was out of town and unavailable for comment.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said Monday that mask requirements would be left up to individual districts. On Tuesday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance recommending mask mandates for schools. This is regardless of vaccination status because of the delta variant’s transmissibility and ability to cause more serious illness.
Luttrell told the board Thursday that there are no local numbers on the prevalence locally of the delta variant because genetic testing of the virus is not being done outside metro areas.
The Lebanon Special School District will begin classes next week with masks optional, Director Scott Benson confirmed Friday.
The Wilson County Civic League hosted its annual summer basketball camp for local youths this past month and wound it down Thursday with the final day of camp before school resumes next week.
To celebrate the culmination of camp, the participants were rewarded with a pizza party and a visit from Lebanon Police to talk with them about making responsible choices.
Sgt. Tim Kelley and Officer Jeremiah Vantrease came out to discuss the implications that seemingly small choices can have on the long-term quality of a person’s life.
Kelley called speaking to the campers a “privilege,” and was happy to be able to engage with the children on a personal level. The sergeant said that people can form all types of impressions about law enforcement from what they see on television, so its important for them to have a real life interaction before jumping to conclusions.
On making the right choices, Kelley said, “9 times out of 10 making the right choice is going to have a long term effect on you better than making the wrong choice, helping you through life.”
He hoped that his message was received by the campers. “It may be the one thing they needed to hear to send them in the right direction.”
Kelley complimented the program’s director, Reggie Hatcher, and volunteer, Eddie Thompson, for the “good job they do with the kids,” adding that he would recommend the camp to anyone old enough to participate.
Program Director Reggie Hatcher said that making good choices had been a theme in years past because it’s so important for young people to realize how choices can make or break their future.
Hatcher explained that the camp, which has been going on for eight years, offers the kids a lot more than just teaching them the significance of the decisions they make though.
“These kids, some of them don’t get a summer vacation, so we like to think of this as their summer vacation,” said Hatcher. “We do it the whole month of July on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:15-7:15 p.m. Since a lot of them don’t take vacations, they really look forward to this.”
The camp teaches the fundamentals of basketball and how to play a team sport. One camper, Kayden Young, an 11-year-old from Lebanon who is getting ready to go to middle school said he has “learned a lot of stuff about how to play basketball.”
Kayden said he has also made a lot of friends along the way. Basketball is his favorite sport and he wants to play when he gets to Walter J. Baird. But he said that’s not all he learned at camp. He said he’s learned that being on a team takes good communication and he added that it’s been helpful for him to control his temper when he starts to get mad.
The rising middle schooler’s fondest memory from camp came a few years ago when he was the youngest participant. “I came when I was eight and Reggie gave me a basketball at the end of practice,” he said.
Unfortunately, they weren’t able to hold the camp last year, due to pandemic concerns. This year, Hatcher said that since the COVID numbers were down, “We felt like we could do it safely, but we still wanted to be cautious.”
As an IT specialist for the Wilson County School system, he interacts with students a lot. He said he was approached by several students asking if they were going to have it this year.
Previous summers had been held at the city gym behind the police department, but since the numbers were smaller this year, the gym at the WCCL building was sufficient.
Hatcher said the program relies on the instructors who are former basketball players from Lebanon.
Freddie Hall is one of those instructors. The 34-year-old Lebanon High School alum and current assistant track coach for the Blue Devils is in his second year with the camp.
“The most rewarding part is seeing the kids have fun. They don’t really get to go outside or have a place to shoot ball. It’s important for them to be able to pick up a ball and just be a kid,” he said.
Hall added that the program really does teach other important life skills, like being disciplined and being able to listen to authority figures. “At some point in your life, you’re gonna have to listen to somebody and follow the rules,” he said.
Another instructor, Staci Andrews, has been volunteering for five years. She said that she liked the smaller number format this year’s class size offered. “We have more instruction with each kid versus having 100 kids, where it’s harder to be one on one.”
Hatcher agreed with Andrews’ comment. “I actually love a smaller group because it allows for a more intimate experience,” he said.
Andrews played basketball at Lebanon High School for four years, so she is very passionate about the game and what it can teach young people. She lamented that if anything the camp was too short.
“I wish they would open up something more for the kids instead of just the short summer camp.”
Hatcher said the reason for the short camp is that they don’t want to compete with other seasons going on at different levels, forcing the kids to decide which one they wanted to do.
Being back in the gym brought back fond memories for Andrews who said she played in the same gym when she was younger, so she was happy she could “give back.”
Alongside Andrews was Chanta Stephen, another instructor and a full-time probation officer in Wilson County, who said that the kids are a pleasure to work with. “You always have that one that you want to help more than others,” she said, but as the self-described “goofy” one of the group, she felt like she can reach children going through a difficult time more easily than some of the other instructors.
Stephen said the best thing about the camp is keeping up with the children as they go on to other leagues. “We like to go out and support them when they make local teams and see if they apply what we taught them.”
Hatcher said that the campers can come from anywhere, but that most of them come from the east side of Lebanon.
Hatcher is grateful to the WCCL because with its help, they are able to make the camp free of charge. Through donations and contributions, it’s all possible and all worth it.
“I enjoy it, the kids enjoy it. In the long run it’s about giving back to the community,” Hatcher said.
Lebanon’s search for a magic bullet to prevent flood damage on the square and surrounding areas is proving to be a quixotic task, but city officials aren’t ready to give up.
After the Army Corps of Engineers completed its study of the Sinking Creek watershed, the results were not what the city had been hoping for. In a memo to the City Council, Lebanon Commissioner of Public Works Jeff Baines said, “The Corps staff agrees the Stumpy Lane detention structure does not provide significant flood reduction to the major flooding events the City experienced in February 1989, May 2010 and March 2021.
“Due to all the regulations, safety requirements, anticipated costs for an actual dam, the Corps did not recommend moving forward with a project that would fall under the Safe Dams Act.”
Under the Tennessee Safe Dams Act, a dam is defined as any structure that is at least 20 feet high or that can impound at least 30 acre-feet of water. Dams are assigned hazard potential categories that reflect the threat to life and property in the event of a failure.
The Corps advised the city to discuss such a project with state agencies but cautioned Lebanon officials that the Stumpy Lane structure would impound approximately 58 acre-feet. An acre foot of water equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough to cover an acre of land with one foot of water.
The city had been exploring the Stumpy Lane detention structure for some time, but numbers that came back from the Corps reflected such a structure’s futility in the event of a storm like the one in March.
Based on modeling, even with the structure in place, the flooding on the square would only be reduced by an inch during a 100-year flood. Observers are calling the most recent event a 100-year flood, despite another 100-year flood happening only 11 years ago.
Baines submitted his own recommendations in the memo urging the council not to enter the agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers but instead to continue developing more advanced warning systems to alert business owners of imminent flooding.
Baines also suggested considering various items identified in the Corps study such as removal of the old railroad bridge and buildings upstream from the square.
Baines isn’t the only one offering up options. City Engineering Director Regina Santana has suggested developing an incentive plan for new development in the watershed to detain and store additional stormwater.
She also brought up grants that could be used to buy out homes in flood prone areas or reinforce the foundations of the businesses on the square. For now, Santana and Baines have both mentioned the prospect of store owners using concrete floors to mitigate damage inside their buildings, installing outlets several feet off the ground and storing valuable items above flood elevations.
Despite the Corps’ study and the negative recommendations from Baines and Santana, the Lebanon City Council will vote on whether to move forward with an agreement with the Corps.
During the last council meeting on July 20, Baines said to the council, “They (the Corps) wouldn’t recommend spending over a million dollars on a one-inch flood drop. We don’t recommend that, but we respect it if this council does.”
Ultimately, the city council opted to defer the matter until Tuesday’s meeting. The deadline for the partnership with the Corps expires Aug. 18. The decision to go forward requires council approval on two separate readings, so it would have to pass during Monday’s meeting and again on Aug. 17.
The Watertown community will kick off the new school year with a big barbecue competition and a fun family day at the park.
The Back to School Supply Drive and BBQ Competition takes place on Sunday in Three Forks Park in Watertown and starts at 6 p.m.
Watertown and East Wilson Chamber of Commerce President Austin Floyd said Friday that there would be bounce houses, softball games and other fun surprises that people will just have to come out and see for themselves.
Floyd said, “The drive is to raise school supplies for lists we received from Watertown High School, Watertown Middle School and Watertown Elementary.”
These lists included the essentials, like pencils and paper, along with special wish lists submitted by teachers, based on their specific classroom needs.
According to Floyd, “The supplies will be received at the event, sorted and taken directly to the schools on Monday for teachers to distribute and use as needed.”
Thursday marks the students’ first day back in class.
The event is getting a lot of help from sponsoring churches in the area. That list includes Water’s Edge Church, Round Lick Baptist Church, First Baptist Church and the Church of God of Prophecy. Watertown Elementary School Parents as Leaders in School (PALS) is also sponsoring the event.
Floyd commended the churches on their dedication and contributions. “The local churches are incredible,” she said. “They have donated everything from the bounce house, to food, supplies and the volunteers to make this truly be a community event.”
The chamber director said this was the first time her organization had spearheaded the event, which previously was more like a series of individual local churches conducting their own similar but smaller events. By combining the resources, Floyd said she is excited for this event to be the “best of its kind yet.”
Round Lick Baptist Church’s worship and music leader, Bryan Howard, said that he was excited to see so many churches getting involved. “I think there is room for every one of us. With more people working together, we can achieve more for the students.”
Howard said that Round Lick Baptist had been offering school supply assistance going back before the Watertown churches combined to make the event into a multi-congregation collaboration.
“Typically, every year we supply things through the schools’ guidance offices, based on student needs that arise.”
Howard said one of Round Lick’s parititioners was actively engaged with the local school system as a parent of students at all three of Watertown’s schools. Having the inside track on what students needed has held direct the church’s efforts to really help those children in need.
Round Lick’s contributions are hardly limited to school supplies. Howard said that last year during the pandemic, when school staff was strained, volunteers from his congregation stepped up and helped out in the cafeteria serving the students lunches.
At the event on Sunday, Howard will be found working at the tent where attendees can drop off school supplies to be donated.