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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / HCEA President Jeanette Omarkhail speaks during a meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education about raising wages for Hamilton County school teachers on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The teachers union is objecting to a plan by Hamilton County Schools to resume five-day-a-week instruction starting Monday for at least two weeks.

Jeanette Omarkhail, Hamilton County Education Association president, was part of the district's reopening task force, which school officials tapped to gather data from the Hamilton County Health Department to determine the best way to resume instruction in schools after a shutdown this past spring amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Since opening day on Aug. 12, that has meant an alternating two-day-a-week schedule for most students, with online learning the rest of the school week. On Monday, the district announced that five-day-a-week in-person learning would resume Monday and continue at least through Sept. 11. The district calls the schedule Phase 3 in its reopening plan.

"While the HCEA believes that the Hamilton County school system has worked diligently to provide the best opening possible given the realities of a pandemic, we believe that our schools and our students would best be served by continuing with a staggered schedule that limits the number of students in the schools on any given day," Omarkhail's statement said.

"The Hamilton County Education Association has received input from teachers throughout the county who believe that moving to Phase 3, where social distancing is simply not possible, is not the safest plan for Hamilton County Schools at this point."

The return to full-time schooling came as relief to some parents whose schedules for work and other activities have been disrupted by the partial school weeks.

"We're not against parents, we support them," Omarkhail said. "We are also looking into the safety of students and teachers."

Omarkhail stopped teaching two years ago to be the association's president, but the association's board consists of 10 active teachers within the district.

District officials on Monday afternoon broke the news of the new schedule. They said the schedule for Sept. 14-24 will be announced on Sept. 4, based on health data such as active cases, hospitalizations, patients in intensive care and other factors.

According to communications director Tim Hensley, the changes will not affect those who opted for either of two virtual learning options — one coordinated at the local school level, and one at the district.

Hensley told the Times Free Press in a Tuesday afternoon phone interview that the mixed reactions were not surprising from both sides.

"We will continue to monitor [daily data] as we always have. With COVID-19, we can't always project what's going to happen. On Sept. 4, if things go well, we will continue on Phase 3. If not, it will change," he said.

While some parents said this is a great opportunity for working families, others questioned if it was a good decision.

On the district's public Facebook page, the news generated more than 740 comments and was shared about 920 times.

One parent said the decision was a great choice and anyone who disagrees should have their child go virtual. Another parent said the district should have made its decision after the winter break.

The district's public Twitter page also had mixed comments such as "Hallelujah!" and "watch the COVID cases skyrocket." The tweet generated 39 retweets and comments along with 56 likes.

Hamilton County has had more than 7,500 coronavirus cases since the pandemic arrived here in March. Sixty-nine people have died, including two under the age of 10. None have died in the 11-20 age group.

According to health department data tracked by the school district, there are 1,487 active cases in the county. Fifteen district employees have active infection, and 10 students, according to the district's tracking website.

Contact Monique Brand at mbrand@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @MoBrandNews.

 

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