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When Murray County Schools opened its doors for the 2021-2022 school year last week, the No. 1 goal of district leaders was to keep students in face-to-face instruction as long as possible.

That remains the goal as students and staff celebrate their first official week back in class.

"In our community and our neighboring communities, we are seeing an uptick in COVID because of the delta variant. We want everyone to know the safety of our students and staff is of the utmost importance, but yet we also want to do everything we can to keep as many children in school face to face as we can," Superintendent Steve Loughridge said. "That's our main mission, because we know that's best."

(READ MORE: Whitfield County inmates can now receive monoclonal antibody treatments)

To achieve that, some of the rules the district had in place last year were updated.

Masks are not required for students unless they are on school buses, but they are mandated for all school district employees when inside school buildings and facilities.

Previously, staff had been allowed to remove masks whenever they were further than three feet from students and other staff members, but the rule was changed in an effort to limit the number of required quarantines and slow the spread of the virus.

For the purpose of contact tracing and quarantines, the updated COVID-19 guidance defines "close contact" as within three feet for 15 minutes or more.

According to the school's guidelines, that means students or staff who spend more than 15 minutes within three feet of an individual who tests positive will be notified of the positive case and the need to monitor for symptoms.

The local Department of Public Health will be in contact with those people to communicate any necessary quarantine information. Parents of students who were not in close contact with the student will also be notified if their student was in an affected classroom.

Extracurricular activities will follow the same guidance for contact tracing. It will be up to coaches to notify parents about any positive cases. Students who participate in extracurricular activities will be required to have their temperatures taken before practices and answer screening questions because of the close contact required in some sports.

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"One of the ways to avoid quarantines is to wear a mask. If I have a mask on and you have a mask on, we can be within three feet and even if one of us develops COVID, if the other doesn't have symptoms, you won't have to quarantine," Loughridge said. "We aren't requiring masks for students, but we're encouraging them."

Fully vaccinated students and staff exposed to someone with COVID-19 will not be required to quarantine as long as they remain asymptomatic. Similarly, if a student who tests positive was wearing a mask at school beforehand, exposed students who were masked while in contact with them will not have to quarantine as long as they remain asymptomatic.

Enhanced cleaning measures continue to be part of the COVID-19 mitigation plan for Murray County Schools. School buildings and facilities are cleaned regularly and multiple times throughout the school day. Ventilation systems have been upgraded to allow for better air filtration, and water fountains have been replaced in most schools with water bottle filling stations. Hand sanitizer is also made available for students and staff for free.

"Our guidance can change, please stay updated with us," Loughridge said. "We're constantly monitoring the situation."

(READ MORE: Schools in North Georgia and Tennessee report bus driver shortages)

As of Friday, 15 Murray County Schools students learning virtually from home have tested positive for COVID-19 so far this school year. Seventeen students enrolled in traditional, face-to-face instruction tested positive in the same week-long period.

Sixty-one Murray County Schools students are now in active quarantine or out with the virus due to an in-school exposure, the district reported, and 32 students are in quarantine due to an out-of-school exposure. Three staff members have been quarantined.

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

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