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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, speaks about the district's reopening plan during a news conference at Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences on Jan. 26, 2021.

Starting Monday, the youngest students in Hamilton County Schools will be back in the classroom as district leaders adjust their reopening strategy and new COVID-19 cases continue to fall in the county.

Kindergarten through fifth grade students will return to school four days a week. Grades six through 12 will return to a hybrid phase of two days a week on campus for at least the next week.

Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, said older students could return to the classroom full time the week of Feb. 8 if cases continue to drop.

"The most impactful place and the best place for a student, and I've heard this from teachers and leaders across our district, is in front of a teacher in the classroom," Johnson said. "Our teachers have been heroic. We started the year saying that, and I want to echo that."

The Hamilton County Board of Education placed the decision on reopening in the hands of Johnson and the school's task force last week. The board was expected to make a reopening decision during its Jan. 21 meeting but voted unanimously to defer to the superintendent.

Parents and community members who attended the meeting voiced support for children returning to the classroom. Area students have been online only since mid-December after cases spiked and the county experienced two of the most deadly months from the virus to date.

In recent weeks, though, cases and hospitalizations have dropped to levels mirroring mid-November, before the Thanksgiving surge. On Tuesday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 202 new cases and 125 confirmed hospitalizations. The county is averaging 161 new cases a day in the past week, the second-lowest average in more than eight weeks.

The school district determines its learning phases based on the number of active cases in the county, as well as hospitalizations and the number of people in intensive care units. Johnson said the district may re-evaluate how it weighs active cases in its learning phase decisions as more area residents become vaccinated.

Teachers are in group 1b, according to the Tennessee Department of Health's vaccination plan, with an expected vaccination date beginning in February or March. Johnson said the county school system has a plan developed with a provider to bring vaccine doses on campuses to save teachers time waiting in line.

Dr. Charles Woods, chief medical officer at Children's Hospital at Erlanger and a member of the school's reopening task force, said there is no perfect plan to reopen schools but the county is continually evaluating its metrics.

"We feel like we know a lot more now than we did six or eight months ago," Woods said. "We will continue to know more, so this is a real-time effort looking at trends over time to make decisions."

Data released Tuesday by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said the best available evidence in several studies across the United States does not suggest the virus is spreading in classrooms at the same rates as some worksites and living facilities. Last fall, the county health department and area leaders said increasing case counts among young people at the time were linked to extracurricular activities outside of schools and not to classrooms.

However, the latest report said decreasing the spread of COVID-19 in schools requires slowing community transmission through policies such as restricting indoor dining. Gov. Bill Lee began lifting restrictions on restaurants in May 2020, lifting all restrictions on gatherings in September. Hamilton County followed his lead by lifting restrictions in September, too.

The county and state have resisted reimposing restrictions on restaurants despite guidance from the former presidential administration that doing so would slow the spread of the virus.

The report did note an increased risk of transmission for students and school staff through sporting events and practices. Johnson said Hamilton County Schools will continue to follow crowd control measures to decrease the risk of spread. Winter sports seasons are ending soon, he said, and the coming spring sports season offers opportunities to compete and practice outdoors, which should lower the risk of transmission.

Sports, the arts and other extracurricular activities play an important role in student mental health, Johnson said.

"We want to make a press to do everything we can to offer these when and where it's safe," he said.

On Monday, the school district confirmed a COVID-19 exposure occurred during the Jan. 21 board meeting. Cody Patterson, communications officer for Hamilton County Schools, said all close contacts in the meeting room had been notified of their exposure.

While most people participating in the meeting wore masks, they are considered close contacts by the CDC if they were within 6 feet of someone who is infected for a total of 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.

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

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