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Students and staff members at Hamilton County Schools will soon be able to receive free COVID-19 tests at schools across the county.

According to a news release, the district is one of seven in the state of Tennessee to be selected for a rapid testing pilot through the state's Department of Health and the Department of Education, which will create a multi-phased rollout of on-site testing that will begin on Dec 4.

The pilot will use BinaxNOW rapid tests, administered by school nurses, that will provide results in approximately 20 minutes.

Due to the lessened reliability of rapid tests when compared to PCR tests, some results, such as those from asymptomatic individuals who test positive or those from symptomatic individuals that test negative, will be followed up on the same day with self-administered Everlywell PCR tests that will be mailed off for official results that will be reported to the Hamilton County Health Department. 

"The priority for everyone in Hamilton County Schools is to keep students and staff safe while continuing to help our children learn and grow," said Dr. Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools in the release. "The rapid test pilot will be an important addition to our SAFE Pledge that is reducing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping our children in safe learning situations as our teachers and staff prepare them for success in life."

(Read more: These are the Hamilton County schools affected most, least by COVID-19 closures)

In the phased plan, symptomatic middle school staff members would be the first to have tests available on Dec. 4, the earliest start date for the pilot in the state.

Due to having staff population sizes smaller than those of high schools and bigger than those of elementary schools, middles schools will be used to assess the testing capacity for the district before moving onto other schools, the release states.

By Dec. 14, the district will extend testing to all symptomatic employees, while symptomatic students will begin receiving tests at the start of the spring semester.

In the final phase, slated tentatively to begin Feb. 1, all asymptomatic staff members will be able to receive tests as supplies and resources allow.

The district is currently preparing to transition from its "phase 3" schedule with most students in school five days a week to "phase 2" of its COVID-19 response plan, which calls for students to attend school in-person twice a week, while participating in virtual learning the other three days of the week due to rising COVID-19 cases in the Chattanooga area. 

High schools transitioned to phase 2 on Nov. 30 after Thanksgiving break and HCS decided to extend hybrid learning to also include K-8 starting on Dec. 7-18 until the end of the semester.

As of Wednesday, the school district's website stated that the county averaged 2,198 active COVID-19 cases in the past five days, and phase 2 is designated by the HCS Reentry and Continuous Learning Plan as between 1,840 and 2,570 active cases.

The county's COVID-19 tracker dashboard states there are currently 82 active student cases and 51 active employee cases with 1,100 across the district awaiting test results or described as "close contacts."

- Compiled by Tierra Hayes

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