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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Second grade teacher Sarah Pedersen's classroom is seen at Henry L. Barger Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County Schools is asking for community input about which grade levels should be meeting for in-person learning and how many days a week such instruction should be taking place during the upcoming semester.

The survey, available until Dec. 9, asks people to mark whether various grades should meet in person five days a week, four days a week with one day of virtual learning, two days a week in a hybrid schedule with three days of virtual learning or go to virtual learning five days a week.

The school system is also seeking input about parent priorities in the upcoming semester, running from Jan. 6 to May 27, and how much notice parents need if the school is changing learning schedules because of a rise or fall in COVID-19 cases in the community.

The ability for students to meet face-to-face with their teachers and peers is tied to the wider Hamilton County population's ability to control the spread of the virus. Local education leaders are monitoring a five-day average of active cases to determine the learning phase and the level of contact students have with each other and staff. The district also considers the average number of positive cases, hospitalizations, patients in intensive care, teacher absences and student absences to determine the phase of learning.

The coronavirus is spreading at a record pace in the community. As of Friday, the county reported 2,771 active cases and averaged 382 new cases a day in the past week, both of which are all-time highs. The Hamilton County Health Department reported nine deaths Friday, the deadliest day for the virus to date.

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

Hamilton County Schools reopened in mid-August using a hybrid learning schedule with alternating groups of students on campus two days per week each. By the end of the month cases were dropping in Hamilton County. A five-day-per-week, in-person school schedule was imposed.

A surge of new cases in November forced the school system to change phases, moving high school students to a hybrid schedule of several on-campus days a week while lower grades continued optional in-person learning five days a week. Two weeks later, facing an even greater surge of cases, the school system decided to move all students to the hybrid schedule from Dec. 7 to Dec. 18.

Various schools shut down entirely for periods of time throughout the semester because of outbreaks of new cases but local health experts said many of the new cases among younger people were driven by gatherings outside of school, not contact in the classroom.

Some of the best available data supports these local findings. Despite early fears, reopening schools appears to not significantly affect the trajectory of the pandemic. Younger age groups, particularly children age 10 and younger, appear less likely to transmit the virus than older children.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young people are also less likely to have an asymptomatic infection, in which they do not show signs of being sick.

"To be sure, the best available evidence from countries that have reopened schools indicates that COVID-19 poses low risks to school-aged children – at least in areas with low community transmission," the CDC states on its website.

On Friday, Hamilton County Schools reported 104 active cases among students, accounting for 0.23% of the district's student body. Comparatively, the active case rate among Hamilton County residents on Friday was more than three times higher, with a 0.75% active case rate in the community.

The greater risk among school communities is for teaching staff and other adults in school administration. Last month, the Tennessee Education Association released a report noting how some school district staffs have higher infection rates than their surrounding communities. The state teachers union called on Gov. Bill Lee to implement stronger safety measures for staff, such as a universal mask mandate for all schools, further state funding for personal protective equipment and updated air circulation systems, providing hazard pay to teachers and expanding health care benefits.

However, young age does not mean immunity from the worst parts of the virus. According to the latest data from the CDC, children 17 years old and younger represent 10%, or just more than 1 million, of the known COVID-19 infections in the United states and less than 0.2%, or around 150, of the known deaths. A study of children in 14 states published in August found that while hospitalization rates among children younger than 18 were roughly a twentieth of those among adults, but one in three hospitalized children were put in the intensive care unit.

Hamilton County has reported three deaths of people under 20 years old, which received significant attention, but the data so far shows that the overwhelming majority, more than 80%, of the local deaths have been residents age 61 or older.

Medical experts have also cautioned against de-emphasizing the mental and emotional risks to children not having consistent social interaction with other children during key developmental phases.

Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, said last week more schools should reopen since schools have not been linked to many cases. The CDC director was speaking in response to New York City's decision to close all public schools because of an increase in cases, a decision the district reversed 12 days later after community pushback.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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