Despite 'opt-out' policy, Hamilton County Schools asks all students to wear masks as COVID-19 forces closures across region

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Orchard Knob Middle School Assistant Principal Michael Calloway squirts sanitizer onto students hands as they arrive for the first day of school. Orchard Knob Middle School started the 2021-2022 school year under a Hamilton County Schools system wide mask mandate on August 9, 2021, because of the surge in the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus.

Schools across the Chattanooga region that just started the new academic year are struggling to control COVID-19 as the highly contagious delta variant drives cases among largely unvaccinated students - prompting Hamilton County Schools to ask all students to wear face masks and forcing some schools to close altogether.

Nakia Towns, interim superintendent for Hamilton County Schools, said in an online recording Tuesday that 596 students had tested positive for COVID-19 so far this month, surpassing the district's previous high-water mark of 509 reported cases in December 2020 with a week still left to go in August.

"We are in a difficult moment. ... Today alone, we've gotten reports of 55 new student cases as of this recording," Towns said. "Though parents have a choice in the masking decision for your child, I am asking you to make a choice that will help keep our students safe and on campus for school, and that choice is for your child to wear a mask every day until the current wave is over."

The call for universal masking comes less than two weeks after Hamilton County Schools officials announced the district would require students to wear masks indoors but allow parents to opt out on behalf of their child despite leading medical organizations saying all students should wear face masks.

Shortly after the district announced its new policy, Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order directing all schools in the state with mask mandates to allow a parental opt-out.

"With Gov. Lee's most recent executive order, we respect and understand parental choice. I am now asking that all students mask, even those with parental opt-out, until the level of community spread has declined. By implementing universal masking, we hope to slow the spread and keep as many students in school as possible," Towns said.

(READ MORE: Tennessee doctors, nurses pressure Gov. Lee to drop parental opt-out order on school mask requirements)

As of Wednesday, 14.64% of Hamilton County students had opted out of the mask requirement, but the opt-out rate by school varies widely across the district. Eight schools had zero opt-outs, whereas the school with the highest opt-out rate - Sale Creek Middle/ High School - was approaching 60% of students without masks, according to data from the district.

New COVID-19 cases among Tennessee school children ages 5 to 18 last week skyrocketed past the previous weekly record of about 8,000 cases set in December to roughly 12,000 new cases in a week.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Hamilton County Schools reported 423 active COVID-19 cases and 2,974 active close contacts - the term for when a student must quarantine at home until they can be deemed healthy after being exposed to a positive case - among students, according to the district's data dashboard. The numbers are up from the 341 active cases and 2,491 active close contacts reported Tuesday.

Among staff, there are 65 active cases and 29 active close contacts, according to the dashboard, compared to 51 active cases and 32 active close contacts reported Tuesday afternoon.

There are about 2,800 full-time teachers and 44,500 students in Hamilton County Schools, according to the district's website.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Schools' mask policy taking heat from parents on both sides of debate)

Although children typically fare much better against COVID-19 than their adult counterparts, they can still become seriously ill and die because of the disease.

Data from the Tennessee Department of Health shows that as of Tuesday there were 56 children age 17 and under hospitalized for COVID-19 across the state, including 12 in intensive care and four on ventilators. A month ago, the state had just seven hospitalized pediatric COVID-19 patients, including two ICU patients and one on a ventilator.

COVID-19 outbreaks in schools can also have harmful ripple effects across a community, including helping spread the coronavirus to other vulnerable residents, causing economic loss for families and businesses when parents must stay home with a sick child and adding strain to already overwhelmed health care and education systems.

(READ MORE: Tennessee officials respond to rise in child hospitalizations as schools resume)

On Wednesday, there were 68 COVID-19 patients needing intensive care in Hamilton County hospitals, which is more ICU patients than at any other time in the pandemic, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department.

Ivy Academy, a charter school in Hamilton County focused around outdoor learning, is one of several regional schools forced to close this week due to COVID-19.

Among the school's 430 students and 57 faculty members, there are 21 active COVID-19 cases and more than 120 people in quarantine, Ivy Academy Executive Director Holly Slater said in a Wednesday email. The school closed Tuesday and will reopen Friday.

Meigs County Schools announced on Facebook on Tuesday that the district will dismiss early Wednesday and remain closed the rest of the week "due to student and staff illness."

In Bradley County, Cleveland City Schools will close Thursday and Friday due to staffing shortages. Russell Dyer, director of Cleveland City Schools, told radio station Mix 104.1 Wednesday that illness, including COVID-19, was one of the reasons for the shortage.

"We know students need to be in front of a teacher in a classroom setting, but we also know that we have to provide that environment where they can be safe and where our staff can be safe and adequately have enough adults in the building to ensure that what we're doing is the right thing to do," Dyer told the station.

Dyer said the district plans to reopen Monday, and he encouraged the school community to wear masks and consult physicians about getting vaccinated if eligible.

"We're strongly requesting that when we come back on the 30th, everyone please wear a mask if you could, that's something that will be helpful," Dyer said.

"Also we'll point out again we're seeing from local physicians and others that the vaccine is out there for all those 12 and older, we strongly encourage everyone to talk to their physicians and talk to other medical providers to see if that could be the right decision for us to keep our doors open," he said.

The surge in students quarantining for COVID-19 exposure has raised questions about virtual learning. In North Georgia, school districts in Chattooga, Catoosa and Dade counties recently shifted to some form of virtual learning due to rising COVID-19 infections.

Hamilton County Schools created a virtual education program for students in quarantine, following state board of education guidelines revised in July.

The state board's rule identifies virtual education programs as serving students while they are quarantined and not as a full-time method of instruction, like a virtual school.

"Students that are quarantined will take all materials with them when they go home such as student workbooks (ELA and Math curriculum use those) or Chromebooks (available to students grades 3-12)," said district spokesperson Cody Patterson in a Tuesday email. "Our Canvas LMS is still available and active for students. Students have multiple ways to stay connected to the classroom and communicate with their teachers."

For students too ill to complete work while in quarantine, Patterson said they can make up work for full credit the same ways they would because absences for other illnesses.

It's a different story for schools that have to close due to COVID-19 exposure. Last year, schools could shift to remote learning amid COVID-19 outbreaks, but a state board of education rule states districts cannot shift to remote instruction this year unless the governor declares a state of emergency or if the department of education grants districts permission.

Now, schools have to use stockpile days, also called inclement weather days or snow days, when closing due to COVID-19.

Hamilton County Schools has 10 stockpile days for the year that apply to the district and to individual school closures, Patterson said in a Wednesday email, and if a school runs out of stockpile days the district can petition the education commissioner to make up those days.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at [email protected] or 423-757-6592.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.