Hamilton County Schools to end phase tracker use the week of March 15

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A school bus waits to drop off students at the front entrance on the first day of school at Hixson Elementary School on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020 in Hixson, Tenn. Hamilton County Schools will enter phase 3 of its reopening plan next week, bringing most students back to the classroom.

Beginning the week of March 15, Hamilton County Schools will no longer use its "phase tracker," a data-centered approach to the COVID-19 pandemic that has been used to provide weekly updates on community spread and make decisions about school openings and closings.

The phase tracker consists of four phases, with Phase 1 being the highest risk of spreading COVID-19 and Phase 4 having the lowest risk of community spread. The district updated the community on a biweekly and then weekly basis and moved between phases based on data such as the number of active COVID-19 cases in Hamilton County.

The district most recently moved into Phase 3 the week of Feb. 15-19, when all students except virtual learners returned to class full-time, five days a week, except for campuses with specific pandemic cases requiring at-home learning.

Phase 4, the lowest-risk phase, requires 371 or fewer cases in the community. The tracker listed the average daily active cases at 1,054 as of Wednesday.

There are several reasons for dropping the phase tracker, said Hamilton County Schools chief of staff and lead COVID-19 response coordinator Jennifer Bronson.

"March 16 will mark one year ago, was our school closure. It also marks the end of the third quarter, and by that point, 100% of our staff and contract employees will have had access to the vaccine," Bronson said. "By that date, we feel pretty certain that every staff member that desires to be vaccinated will have had an opportunity to get an appointment."

The district does not have a total number of employees who have taken the vaccine, and vaccine reporting for staff is voluntary, Bronson said. At a vaccination event with One to One Health last weekend, 1,168 doses were administered to Hamilton County Schools-affiliated staff, Bronson said, and there will be another event with One to One to vaccinate school staff this weekend. The district has about 6,000 employees.

Beyond the partnership with One to One, school staff have received vaccines through the county health department, a partnership with Clinica Medicos and going outside Hamilton County before its transition into phase 1b, which allowed teachers to get vaccines.

The decision comes on the heels of Hixson Middle School moving to remote learning for three days due to "a number of positive COVID cases we have had in our community." The school notified families and staff of the shift -Wednesday through Friday of this week - via email on Tuesday afternoon and posted an update on the district website.

For Hamilton County Schools teacher Jenn Riley, it is too soon to retire the phase tracker.

"If there are few enough cases, why not just go to phase 4?" Riley said in a written message. "I think by getting rid of it, they undermine the SAFE Schools pledge - especially if our cases go back up, say after spring break, and we need to close schools again."

The schools' reopening task force began discussing a phased plan for reopening schools in May, and the reopening framework suggested in July was based on recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state of Tennessee, survey responses from teachers and parents and input from the community.

School board member Jenny Hill is part of the school reopening task force. She said that the phase tracker is a remarkable tool but that it has served its purpose.

"I'm very thankful that we have had the tracker to help keep people informed, but now as COVID evolves in our community, greater flexibility, especially as it relates to school-by-school choices based on health in that school community, is going to help our kids be in the classroom more," Hill said.

The district will continue collecting the same data that was fed into the tracker, but the tracker won't be online anymore. The website holds a COVID data dashboard and the district is working on a similar vaccine dashboard, Bronson said.

"It's an opportunity for us to retire it and move away from some of the uncertainty of doing a phase update weekly, and get to a more reliable five-day operating cadence with school-specific closures as needed in response to COVID events," Bronson said.

The shift away from the phase tracker coincides with other school districts statewide and nationally easing COVID-19 protocols.

A Tuesday story in The New York Times analyzed data from the CDC about reopening schools based on COVID-19 transmission. The data suggests that most counties, including Hamilton County, should operate elementary schools in a hybrid setting and that middle and high schools should be fully remote based on mitigation strategies and the number of positive COVID cases. However, the analysis contrasts with CDC recommendations to quickly reopen schools nationwide.

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