COVID-19 cases are higher than ever in Hamilton County Schools

Contributed Photo by Maggie Caruso / Hixson Elementary and nine other Hamilton County schools have gone to remote learning because of a surge in COVID-19 cases.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Hamilton County Schools is now significantly higher than at any other point in the pandemic.

As of Thursday, the percentage of new COVID-19 cases in students is 6.02, according to the Hamilton County Schools COVID-19 data dashboard. That's up from 0.76% in December 2021 and almost double the 3.52% of positive cases at the height of delta surge in August 2021.

Employee cases are also significantly higher this month than at any other time during the pandemic, at 13.99% as of Thursday. Previously, the highest rate of positive staff cases was 4.14% in December 2020.

Late Thursday, the district announced five more schools would be going to remote learning Friday through Tuesday due to rising COVID-19 case numbers - Battle Academy, Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts, East Brainerd Elementary, Lookout Valley Middle High School and Wolftever Creek Elementary.

The district had previously shifted nine other schools to remote learning Thursday and Friday, with some remaining closed until Tuesday.

As of Thursday, there were 1,178 active student cases and 308 active employee cases, according to the Hamilton County Schools COVID-19 data dashboard.

The school with the highest number of active student cases was Signal Mountain Middle/High at 59, followed by Ooltewah High at 58. Nolan Elementary and Chattanooga School for Liberal Arts both had 52 active student cases.

There were 308 active employee cases as of Thursday. Schools with the most active employee cases were Harrison Elementary and Spring Creek Elementary with 10 apiece and Normal Park Museum Magnet with nine. East Brainerd Elementary, Ooltewah Elementary, Hunter Middle, Ooltewah High and Snow Hill Elementary all had eight active employee cases.

The state of Tennessee prohibits entire school districts from shifting to remote learning, but individual schools may shift to virtual learning for a period of up to five calendar days if a waiver request is submitted and approved by the state commissioner of education.

Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, said teachers are concerned about the rising cases.

"They also know that we are looking at this cresting and declining again hopefully in the next month," she said. "But right now the cases are rising, and we have limited resources to cover classes when teachers are out."

She said the inability of the district as a whole to switch to remote learning for a limited period of time is a struggle, adding that's not the district's fault.

"When many schools shift to remote learning, as they have this week, educators with school-age children are not only teaching their students remotely but monitoring their own children's learning as well," she said.

Teachers whose schools remain open but have children whose schools have shifted to remote learning are also having to take time off to stay home with their children, she said.

"Everyone's stressed," Omarkhail said. "It's beyond 'I'm burned out.' It's 'I'm exhausted, but I care too much about these kids to put myself first.' That's one of the big things with teachers: They're not going to put themselves first. They're worried and they're concerned and they're going to express that, but they're going to keep going in because it's what they do."

She said some teachers are having to take students whose teachers are absent into their classrooms.

"When you're ending up putting fifth graders in a second-grade class because there's nowhere else to put them, that's hard," Omarkhail said. "That's new; that is not something that had happened before. We are in a very unique situation of how we are handling this and doing the best that we can with what we have."

Hamilton County Schools Communications Manager Janelle Drake did not respond to a phone call or emailed questions about the situation sent by a reporter on Thursday.

On Thursday night the school board voted to supplement pay for certified staff members who volunteer to cover classes for absent teachers or take more students into their classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are grabbing people from all over who are basically serving in the role of substitutes," school board member Marco Perez of Signal Mountain said at Thursday's school board meeting. "This isn't a long-term solution in any way, shape or form."

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.