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Thousands more students will be returning to Hamilton County Schools classrooms in January as parents step away from virtual learning options.

Before the fall semester, 35.5% of area public school students, or around 16,000 people, were enrolled in HCS at Home, the district's virtual learning center. According to HCS data, the most recent sign-up from November shows that 18.2% of students, or around 8,250 people, will continue with virtual learning in the spring semester, which begins Jan. 6.

"We saw that percentage almost drop in half, which tells us that more people are interested in sending their students to school, given whatever protocol is recommended from state and federal officials," said Cody Patterson, communications officer for Hamilton County Schools.

The influx of in-person students next month could stress the local school system as possible exposure to the virus can send students and staff home to quarantine until test results are delivered. Schools across the country have struggled to meet staffing requirements as exposure to the virus has sickened some teachers and forced others to quarantine at home.

Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, said finding enough staff to fill in, and the money to pay them, presents a major challenge to Hamilton County. She said the district does not have the money and could use state or federal government funds, if those bodies would release them.

"There's only so many substitutes that you can have sit in a classroom while a teacher is at home," Omarkhail said. "And when you have to quarantine teachers, they need those subs, too. So it's a lose-lose situation. There's no winning in this."

Nearly nine months into the pandemic, public health experts have a better understanding of how the virus spreads and the risk of contracting the disease at schools. 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.

The greater risk is among teaching staff and other adults at the schools. 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.

Hamilton County Schools made virtual teaching accommodations in the fall semester for about 150 teachers, Patterson said. The district is talking to teachers about virtual options for the spring semester and reviewing requests on a case-by-case basis, he said.

The district will host a virtual community meeting on Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. to discuss and gather input on learning plans for the spring semester.

Teachers raised concerns recently when the school board looked to revise its communicable disease policy and it appeared teachers might be deemed essential and asked to continue working in-person if exposed to COVID-19.

Omarkhail said she is pleased the board revised the proposed policy to state that someone who was exposed or asymptomatic and awaiting test results can continue working but not if doing so would endanger children or if the person could not do their job without social distancing. This change leaves teachers out of consideration, she said.

Patterson said the initial policy proposal was too vague and allowed for confusion about who it was intended to cover, specifically non-instructional staff.

The revised policy, which the board is scheduled to vote on Thursday, says the director of schools can allow employees to continue working if they are asymptomatic and have not received test results but only if they cannot work remotely, wear proper protective gear, can do the work while social distancing and choose to continue working rather than taking time off.

The changes maintain the school district's stance from August when it said it would not follow the state's guidance that allowed districts to deem staff "critical infrastructure" and have educators return to work if they have been exposed to the coronavirus or live with someone who is COVID-19 positive.

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

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