More than 400 people who are part of Walker County Schools — students and faculty members — were quarantined as of Wednesday afternoon as COVID-19 cases throughout the district slowly rose.
The school district has been publishing weekly coronavirus updates on Friday afternoons since school started in mid-August. Since the start of school, 41 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and 486 people have had to be quarantined because of close contact.
The Friday reports include numbers as of the Thursday before at 5 p.m. Last weeks' report showed 32 people had COVID-19, while 436 were in quarantine.
At first glance the numbers seem high, but Superintendent Damon Raines said they represent a small percentage of the whole district. The 41 cases represent just .55% of the 7,508 staff members and students now enrolled in school that are in the buildings. The 486 that have been quarantined represent 6.47%.
Raines said at Tuesday night's school board meeting that only five of the 41 positive COVID-19 cases were "school-related cases."
"The rest of them were contracted in the community, whether it was a family member, family friend, at an event outside of school," he said. "We are tracking that as well."
Asked how many of the 41 were students and how many were staff members, Raines told the school board he and his staff were trying to keep that information "in house a little bit."
Debbie Baker, president of the Walker County Association of Educators, said the association believes the district should operate in a "very transparent manner to all stakeholders" when it comes to the potential spread of COVID-19.
"Cases of individuals who have tested positive (or who have been quarantined because of close contact with positive individuals), should be communicated in a timely manner, either in real time or daily," reads a statement by Baker.
Baker added it is important to have the breakdown of how many students and staff members test positive.
"We believe total transparency is essential so that all stakeholders can understand the extent to which COVID-19 is impacting our community and the school system, and so that parents can make appropriate and timely decisions about their own child's health and education," Baker said.
Raines told the Times Free Press Wednesday the district is closely monitoring the cases but isn't considering a district-wide transition from in-person learning to a hybrid method.
"We're not really close to closing everything down," he said. "If anything we would most likely close down a wing of a certain school, maybe shut down a grade level or close a certain school that might be hit particularly hard."
On a school-by-school basis, 95 people are quarantined from Saddle Ridge elementary and middle school with three COVID-19 cases, 93 are qurantined at LaFayette Middle School with seven positive cases and 40 people are quarantined at Chattanooga Valley Elementary with two positive cases.
Raines said there is still a lot of anxiety from students and teachers about the possibility of an outbreak, and adapting to the new normal is something everyone is having to deal with.
"I know kids are happy to be back in the building and to have some of that normalcy back," he said. "A lot of the information and the stories they heard over the summer were typically negative, so it's great to have them back in school where they know they're taken care of."
At the same time, Raines said he knows there is still some fear due to the uncertainty of what might happen on any given day with the coronavirus.
"There is some trepidation when it comes to this, but one thing I know about teachers especially is their ability to adapt quickly," he said.
Raines said the necessary health and safety protocols that were put in place have been well received, and he's encouraged by the overall numbers.
Contact Patrick Filbin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.