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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 educators are feeling some of the frustrations of area health care workers as the coronavirus continues to spread at record levels in the community.

Since August, teachers have worn personal protective equipment and monitored students to ensure the young people wore masks and kept their distance from others.

But the spread of the virus throughout the county, which as of Friday included 2,208 active cases, forced Hamilton County Schools to move high school students to a hybrid learning schedule starting the Monday after Thanksgiving.

"We need the community to step up and support the pledge, the Safe Pledge that the school system has asked the teachers and students to take," said Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, "because the spread is coming from the community into the schools, not the other way around."

The surging case numbers statewide worry the Tennessee Education Association, the state teachers union, which released a report noting how some school district staffs have higher infection rates than the surrounding community.

The Hamilton County infection rate for active cases was 0.6% on Friday. The active case infection rate for Hamilton County Schools was 0.65% for staff and 0.16% for students on Friday.

This dynamic prompted the teachers union to write a letter to Gov. Bill Lee calling for stronger measures to ensure staff safety, 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.

Omarkhail said the county has done well in protecting staff and students but the local school district just does not have the resources to expand protections. That must come from the state or federal government, she said.

Like area health care providers, Omarkhail called on residents to take steps to stop the spread so children can go back to in-person learning. Teachers have spent months doing all they can to keep students safe and learning during this pandemic, she said.

"They're heartbroken that the community is not seeing that what they are doing is so much impacting the infrastructure of our community," Omarkhail said. "It's impacting our schools being able to be open."

Tim Hensley, communications officer for Hamilton County Schools, said the district has been able to provide protective equipment and other items, such as desk dividers, to all area teachers. This has been a particularly stressful school year because of the pandemic and things happening outside of school hours are having a direct impact on the entire school system.

"The school district is a part of the community," Hensley said. "As the community has any type of a change or issue, it's going to show up in the school. Kids don't spend all of their time in school. They spend more time out of school. You can't control all those particular areas."

The Hamilton County Health Department has said social gatherings outside of school, not schools themselves, are the main driver of cases among 11- to 20-year-old residents.

The Tennessee Education Association letter to Lee asked the state to improve its statewide COVID-19 dashboard for schools.

"It is clear there are significant errors in the dashboard; gross underreporting is apparent when the student infection numbers are cross-referenced with concurrent Department of Health cases for school-age children," says the letter from Beth Brown, president of the education association.

The Tennessee Department of Education, in response, stood by its reporting dashboard.

"The COVID-19 district information dashboard displays suppressed data that is self-reported by school districts to count the numbers of new COVID-19 positive cases each week among both students and staff, and uses strict privacy protocols," the department said in a statement. "Educators and school and district leaders across the state are working hard to educate all students while following the proper health guidance, and we commend districts that have voluntarily reported data for the dashboard each week."

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

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