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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Masks and thermometers are available in the hallway at Orchard Knob Middle School. Orchard Knob Middle School started the 2021-2022 school year under a Hamilton County Schools system wide mask mandate on August 12, 2021, because of the surge in the Delta variant of the Coronavirus.

Five Hamilton County schools will shift to remote learning next week because of rising COVID-19 cases, as the delta variant surges across the district and especially on campuses with a high percentage of parents opting out of the district's mask requirement for their children.

Sale Creek Middle/High School, East Hamilton Middle School and Ooltewah High School will shift to remote learning all of next week, while Daisy Elementary School and Alpine Crest Elementary School will move to remote learning Monday and Tuesday.

Wednesday will be a remote learning day districtwide and was already listed as such on the district calendar before Friday's announcement for the five schools.

"Although current state law does not permit the entire school district to shift to remote learning outside of a declared emergency, we have recently interpreted state board policies, rules and regulations that allow for the limited use of remote learning for individual schools on a case by case basis," school officials said in a statement.

Of the 44,000 students in Hamilton County Schools, about 500 of them have an active COVID-19 case. When factoring in close contacts of those students, about 4,000 students districtwide are in quarantine.

When comparing the quarantined student population to the percentage of students whose parents have opted them out of the mask mandate at each Hamilton County school, data indicates that some of the schools with the highest mask opt-out rates have the highest percentage of students in quarantine.

At Sale Creek, 41 out of 576 students had an active COVID-19 case as of Friday morning, or 7% of students. When factoring in close contacts, nearly one in four students at the school is under quarantine.

Sale Creek is also the campus with the highest percentage of parents opting their children out of masks: 59% as of Wednesday, or about three out of five students.

Ooltewah High has an active student case rate of 3.05% and an mask opt-out rate of 22%, about one in five students. Daisy Elementary's active student case rate is the second-highest after Sale Creek at 5%, and the school's student mask opt-out rate is about 27% of the school's 340 students.

At East Hamilton Middle, the opt-out rate for masks is 20% and the active student case rate is 1.4%. The student population is 939, and while 13 students have active cases, 247 are active close contacts, bringing the quarantine rate up to nearly 1 in 3 students.

Among Alpine Crest Elementary's 298 students, there is a 2.7% active student case rate and just over 25% of students in quarantine. The mask opt-out rate there is lower than the other four schools, at 10.44% of students.

A similar correlation of high case rates and high mask opt-out rates is visible at other schools in the district. Nearly 40% of students at Loftis Middle School opted out of masks, and the school has an active student case rate of 2.36%. Soddy Daisy Middle School has an active student case rate of 3.78% and one of the 10 highest mask opt-out rates in the district at 35.11%.

Some schools have maintained 0% mask opt-out rates since the district's policy was implemented: Barger Academy, Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy, Clifton Hills Elementary School, Hardy Elementary School, Orchard Knob Middle School, Tyner Middle Academy and Woodmore Elementary School.

Of those schools, Woodmore Elementary has no active cases, while Barger Academy has an active student case rate of 2.23%.

The pattern also has a few exceptions. About 1 in 3 Allen Elementary School students is opting out of masks, yet the school has no active cases. Similarly, fewer than 3% of students at Harrison Elementary School opted out of masks, yet the school has the 11th-highest active student case rate.

The remote learning announcement comes three days after interim Superintendent Nakia Towns requested that students wear masks even if their families opted them out of the policy. The district's mask policy that allows for an opt-out was soon followed by an executive order by Gov. Bill Lee that requires districts with mask requirements to allow for opt-outs across Tennessee.

Hamilton County Department of Health officials said Friday that the department works closely with the school system to continue contact tracing in the community.

"We will continue to work closely with the schools to reduce this burden as case counts in schools continue to increase. We are continuing to do contact tracing at this point. As daily case counts increase, we may find that we need to ask the case to personally notify their close contacts of the exposure," officials said in an email.

Officials said that if a child tests positive for COVID-19 and the family informs the health department where the child goes to school, the department notifies the school system of when symptoms started, when they were last at school and the date of the test.

Staff writer Elizabeth Fite contributed to this report.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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