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Roundup: Graduations to be the Largest Gatherings in Weeks; TN Unemployment Benefits Extended

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KCS changes course on graduation plans 

In a reversal from previous statements, Knox County Schools will now hold graduation ceremonies in mid-June. Unlike former plans for live-streamed and closed ceremonies, each graduate can now invite up to four guests. This decision came after students at Austin-East High School created a video featuring graduates county-wide asking the district to reconsider its plan.  

During a Knox County Board of Education meeting in early May, superintendent Bob Thomas said graduations would be held in late July and would be closed to families and the public. According to the new announcement, ceremonies will take place from June 8 through June 20th, mostly at high school football fields. June 20th is reserved for ceremonies delayed due to rain. 


According to a statement, attendees will be expected to practice social distancing, wear face coverings and stay home if they experience any symptoms of illness. Jacobs posted on Twitter after the announcement, “Good work here. These graduates and their families deserve their special moment.”


But with each graduate able to invite four guests, the ceremonies could mark the largest gatherings in Knox County in weeks. County health director Martha Buchanan said this does not mean graduation ceremonies are exempt from the reopening plan. 


“They’re not exempt. I believe the plan does take into consideration the general guidelines for reopening, and they’ll be following those I’m sure,” Buchanan said. 


The health department will announce later this week whether the county will move into phase two of the plan. Buchanan said today that while coronavirus is still very real in our community, data is looking promising and the county may move into phase two as early as next week. 


TN begins processing federal extensions for unemployment benefits

The state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development is beginning to process unemployment extensions using federal funds. The extension program is under the federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation. 


Typically, recipients are only eligible for 26 weeks of unemployment compensation. The new 13-week extension covers those who have reached this limit. Funding comes through the CARES Act and covers what the state would have normally contributed; in Tennessee that is up to $275 per week. Claims for extensions can be filed at jobs4TN.com.


This is the third pool of federal money the state has implemented for unemployed workers through the CARES Act. But thousands of Tennesseans have taken to social media to discuss their frustrations with the unemployment application process. Some have started a petition to Governor Bill Lee seeking immediate processing of all claims after waiting for weeks on a response to their claim. 


The Department of Labor announced last week that if a workplace reopens "provisions do not apply to employees apprehensive about returning to work because of health concerns." This generally means those who do not feel safe returning to work will no longer qualify for state unemployment benefits if their workplace reopens. There are some exceptions, including those who have a doctor's order to self-quarantine or are providing care for someone diagnosed with COVID-19. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor clarified in an email that the CDC’s guidance alone does not qualify as advice to self-quarantine.


When it comes to those in high-risk groups, the state’s answer has been unclear. The state published an FAQ that says older workers and immuno-compromised people may qualify for federal assistance.


More than half a million people have filed new unemployment claims in Tennessee since March 15. But only 60% of these claims have been paid. The state has paid more than $66 million from state funding and nearly $230 from federal funds. 



Contact tracing challenges as county reopens

Knox County’s Health Department says widespread resumption of business and social activity will make contact tracing efforts more difficult. Contact tracing has become a key part of Knox County's plan to track and prevent the local spread of COVID-19. Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan says her staff is anticipating the challenge and preparing for it. There are currently 31 health department employees working in epidemiology support, but this staff could grow to 247 if needed.


“It does present a bigger challenge for us when we have more potential contacts to a case,” Buchanan said. She added that the department has been doing contact tracing long before COVID-19 for other situations, including disease outbreaks at restaurants in the past. 


“It’s something that we’re prepared to do and something that we do on a regular basis,” Buchanan said.