Despite “cautious optimism” about the decreasing spread of the coronavirus in Nashville, Mayor John Cooper said students and teachers deserve a safe environment when they return to the classroom.

Nashville is in a precarious place in terms of mitigating the spread of COVID-19, Cooper said during a news briefing Thursday, just two days after Metro Nashville Public Schools director Adrienne Battle announced that most Nashville students won’t return to school in-person until at least October. 

“Nashville’s classrooms, athletic fields, courts and gymnasiums should not be laboratories for risk in public health decisions,” Cooper said Thursday. “These are places where our children and their families must know they are safe, and our dedicated MNPS educators and staff also deserve a safe and secure workplace.”

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Metro Schools’ 86,000 students have been learning at home since the school year began on Aug. 4. Nashville is one of only a handful Tennessee school districts that opted not to begin the school year in-person, although most districts offer a virtual option for families.

Lauryn England, a third grade teacher and Metro Schools’ 2019-20 Elementary Teacher of the Year, joined Cooper and Battle at the news briefing Thursday. 

“When I walk into my third grade classroom at Fall Hamilton Elementary, I wish I didn’t have to spend the day there by myself. I miss seeing my students in-person,” England said. “But the most important thing is that my students are safe and they wouldn’t be coming into our buildings each day while COVID-19 is still spreading in Nashville so the virtual learning environment continues to be the best option for our students and their health.” 

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Battle and the Metro Nashville Board of Education discussed the district’s phase-in approach to reopening in-person over the coming months at a board meeting Tuesday.

A small number of exceptional education students might return to classrooms after Labor Day, but otherwise students will begin to return after the district’s fall break in October. The youngest students in pre-K and K-2 would return first. 

Many parents are frustrated with this decision, arguing that virtual learning is ineffective and challenging or that they are unable to balance work and supervising their children at home. Many student athletes and coaches are also upset over the district’s decision to postpone fall sports until further notice. 

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Cooper said those who are upset about schools remaining closed or games being canceled have their own level of personal responsibility. 

“If you’re upset about delays in our season, be upset with people who are not social distancing. The disease level is our county’s report card on how we are doing in public health and right now we don’t have a passing grade,” the mayor said.

“So apply that upsetness to getting a higher level of social distancing and mask wearing and care taking place. This is the job at hand. This is what will put students back in classrooms and players on field sooner.”

On Tuesday, the city reported an average positivity rate of below 10% for the first time since May. Metro health officials reported 137 new cases on Thursday — a 6.4% daily positive rate — with two additional deaths

This is a developing story.

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Meghan Mangrum covers education in Nashville for the USA TODAY NETWORK — Tennessee. Contact her at mmangrum@tennessean.com. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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