Hamilton County Schools to close all schools for two days next week amid COVID-19 surge

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Acting Superintendent of Hamilton County Department of Education Nakia Towns.
Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Acting Superintendent of Hamilton County Department of Education Nakia Towns.

Hamilton County Schools will close all campuses without instruction Tuesday and Wednesday of next week - extending the long Labor Day weekend - to reduce COVID-19 spread, according to a message from the district Wednesday afternoon.

The district will use two stockpile days, typically reserved for inclement weather, and asks families to have students tested before returning to school on Thursday if they suspect they have been exposed to COVID-19 or show symptoms.

In a video message, interim Superintendent Nakia Towns said community spread of the coronavirus has trended upward and strained the district's resources.

"Our schools are a part of this community, and so we are not immune from this spread. The current case levels have created an unsustainable demand on our district resources for contact tracing, quarantining and testing," Towns said in the video.

The announcement comes three weeks into the school year and was unexpected for some parents in the district who do not or cannot work from home.

Tricia Price has a daughter attending middle school in the district at a Title 1 school - the classification for schools with high populations of students from low-income families. She and her husband both work primarily out of the house, and she told the Times Free Press that she found out about the district closing schools on Facebook.

"I think about myself and, you know, worst case, we can probably deal with it. But I think about those families who have multiple kids and who can't deal with it and who are in a Title 1 school, which already tells you the demographic, and then they're just making these decisions and it's less than a week's notice," Price said. "They're trying to say it's the holiday. No, what it really is, is my child receiving less instruction."

Nearly 5,000 of the district's 44,000 students are quarantining for COVID-19 exposure, or about 11%, according to the district's data dashboard. As of Wednesday afternoon, there are 722 active COVID-19 cases among students, up from 623 cases on Tuesday and 577 cases reported Monday.

This week's upward trend applies to faculty and staff, too, with 91 active cases among employees on Wednesday, up from 84 on Tuesday and 80 on Monday.

For this school year, the Tennessee Department of Education has blocked local districts from doing what they did last year when closing during spikes in pandemic cases - using online education to keep instruction going.

The state government places a priority on in-person education, and has told local districts they can seek waivers for individual classrooms or schools to go online - but not entire districts.

So school districts wanting to close to stop the spread have been forced to use learning-free stockpile days, normally reserved for unexpected situations such as snow.

Caleb Irvine, a sophomore at East Ridge High School, said he dislikes that the district is using snow days for closures due to COVID-19.

"I didn't like it because of the fact that they're using snow days to close schools down, and they're closing schools down because of the surge in coronavirus cases," Irvine said. "I don't understand why they would close down school just those two days instead of closing for the rest of the week or just going back to virtual or whatever they need to do to protect the students in general."

Irvine said remote learning is not ideal, but that having home learning days instead of using snow days would help prevent students from falling behind.

"Tuesday and Wednesday next week, we'll have hundreds of students, even thousands of students at home not learning anything because they can't manage the spread of COVID-19 and they took away the option of virtual learning."

Five schools in Hamilton County moved to remote learning this week, prior to the waiver requirement: two schools Monday and Tuesday, and three schools for the whole week.

Wednesday served as a remote learning day, although without Zooms or other instruction. The day was already listed as such on the district calendar before the school closures.

In the video, the district said two vaccine events will be held next week on the days school is closed, at East Hamilton Middle School and Sale Creek Middle/High School - two of the five schools that moved to virtual learning this week due to high COVID-19 cases and close contacts.

The closure announcement follows a similar video message from the district a week ago, in which Towns asked all students to wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, even if their families opted them out of the requirement. The district reported 423 active student COVID-19 cases last Wednesday, which has nearly doubled in the week since.

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

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