File photo / Catoosa County Public Schools Superintendent Denia Reese.

Catoosa County Schools students returned to class last week, and already the district is updating its masking policy and safety protocols to account for an increase in positive COVID-19 cases and quarantines.

In a letter sent to parents and guardians Thursday, Superintendent Denia Reese underscored her concerns about how quickly the virus seems to be spreading among school-aged children and the effect that might have on education throughout the year.

According to information on the Catoosa County Schools website, there were 24 student cases and nine staff cases districtwide in the first week of school. More than 450 students were in active quarantine, and 46 district staff were also quarantining.

"I have been watching our COVID positive cases and quarantines this week, and I have been listening to parents and teachers," Reese said. "I think we all agree that our goal is to keep students and staff healthy and to maintain five-day, in-person learning all year."

Starting Monday, Catoosa County Schools students will be required to wear masks on buses and in hallways during transitions. Physical distancing will be encouraged whenever feasible, and temperature scans will be required before entering school buildings. Parents and other visitors to schools will be required to wear masks for the entirety of their visit.

Masks will be made available to students who do not have their own.

"Social distancing will be required for large group gatherings," Reese said. "If social distancing is not possible, large group gatherings will be limited to outdoor venues."

Field trips will also be limited this school year in an effort to keep students safe and prevent further spread of the virus.

Reese said the district's COVID-19 cleaning technicians will continue to use enhanced disinfection protocols in schools and on buses, focusing on high-touch and high-traffic areas to prevent illness. Students and staff will be encouraged to wash hands often, and hand sanitizer will be available in every Catoosa County school.

Protocols for contact tracing and quarantine have not changed since last week.

Fully vaccinated students and staff in Catoosa County Schools who have been fully vaccinated for at least 14 days are not required to quarantine if they are exposed to someone with a confirmed COVID-19 case. Individuals who are not fully vaccinated who are exposed to someone with a confirmed case of the virus are similarly not required to quarantine as long as everyone present during the meeting correctly masks and a distance of at least three feet apart is maintained through the entire encounter. Those who have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past three months and recovered are not required to quarantine or get tested as long as they do not develop symptoms.

Weekly systemwide COVID-19 positive numbers, listed by school, are posted to the Catoosa County Schools district website every Friday. Parents will be notified by email weekly if a student or staff member in their school tests positive for the virus.

Contact Kelcey Caulder at kcaulder@timesfree or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @kelceycaulder.