Hamilton County Schools officials stand their ground on optional masks as COVID-19 situation worsens

Doctor says the approach avoids 'going to war with the small group that feels strongly in the other direction'

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies are seen in second-grade teacher Jennifer Smith's classroom as she prepares for the upcoming school year at Rivermont Elementary on Thursday, July 30, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson doubled down on the district's decision to recommend that students and staff wear masks in schools - with no mandate - at a virtual town hall Thursday evening.

"We're following the health department guidance around the strong recommendation. CDC guidance says recommendation, the health department is a strong recommendation, ours is a strong recommendation as well," Johnson said to participants in the meeting held on Zoom.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidelines Tuesday stating that both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals should wear masks in schools, and the Hamilton County Department of Health recommended Wednesday that people age 2 and older wear masks indoors, including in school, regardless of vaccine status.

(READ MORE: Delta variant spreads in Hamilton County as children lack access to vaccines, schools not requiring masks)

The district's mask requirement ended June 1 after some angry parents objected to the ongoing requirement at the end of the spring semester.

"Medically, if we get good compliance from people voluntarily doing it, then you don't have to go another step of essentially going to war with the small group that feels strongly in the other direction," Dr. Stephen Adams of CHI Memorial said in the town hall. "It really depends on which way it goes. I think the thing that everyone agrees with is that in-person learning is the best option and we should do everything possible to keep that in place, so that's really where the mindset is."

Members of the public were not allowed to speak at the town hall. They were only allowed to submit questions online to a district moderator, who said there were a number of inquiries about the district's thinking in not requiring masks, as was the case last year.

The Chattanooga area and other regions of the U.S. with low vaccination rates are seeing a COVID-19 surge approaching the severity of the one last winter. Health officials in Hamilton County this week said infection data is "all going in the wrong direction."

Johnson and Adams also discussed vaccines. Johnson stated that 68.7% of teachers in the district have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, and Adams answered questions about the safety of vaccines for young people.

"The vaccines have been shown to be safe. Millions and millions of doses have been given," Adams said. "Compared to other things like even the oral polio vaccine that completely changed the face of illness in the United States and across the world, it's many, many times safer than that."

While most questions centered on mask policies, the panelists also addressed questions related to contact tracing, notification of COVID-19 infections and distancing in classrooms:

Masks and distancing

> Principals cannot require masks in individual schools.

> A 3-foot distance will be maintained when possible but is not guaranteed.

> All schools have some level of access to dividing screens.

> Water fountains have been open throughout the summer, and students will resume eating lunch in cafeterias.

Contact tracing and quarantine

> Notifications of positive COVID-19 cases will be posted on the Hamilton County Schools website every day - families will not receive a phone call.

> The district will not return to its continuous learning plan that allowed for hybrid learning due to a state board of education decision in April, nor will it return to the Phase Tracker that monitored severity of the outbreak.

> Contact tracing and quarantine requirements will carry over from last year. These include quarantine for anyone who spent 15 minutes or more within a 6-foot distance of a person who tests positive for COVID-19 and a 10-day quarantine period.

> There is not yet a procedure in place for how students will continue school work while quarantining, as online learning at the school level has been discontinued.

> Asymptomatic, vaccinated individuals are not required to quarantine.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.