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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Gilbert Elementary is located at 87 South Burnt Mill Road in Walker County. The school was photographed on November 14, 2019.

Walker County Schools students who have had close contact with people with COVID-19 while in school will no longer be required to quarantine.

Administrators said the decision was made because such contacts have recently resulted in fewer school-related clusters of cases. Clusters are defined as three or more positive cases resulting from contact with a positive case.

While students won't be required to stay home, families will continue to be notified if their child has an extended exposure.

The policy only applies to exposures while at school. Any notification of a community or household close contact will still require quarantine in line with the Georgia Department of Public Health unless individuals are asymptomatic and either vaccinated or recovered from a COVID-19 infection in the past 90 days.

"What we have seen through this COVID experience under omicron is that we are not seeing the level of school-connected cases," said Glen Brown, director of student services. "We saw a tremendous level of this back in the fall in August and in September when we had to go hybrid for a few weeks.

"We are not seeing that level of school connection spread like we did before. And in the absence of that reality, we're able to give parents an opportunity to determine whether or not they want to quarantine their child."

(READ MORE: North Georgia schools report significant increase in COVID-19 cases since Christmas)

In August and September of last year, the district saw a combined total of 13 clusters. As of Friday, zero had been reported for December and January.

While evidence may show that cases related to in-school contacts are low, since school resumed for the spring semester, cases in the district rose from 34 student cases the week of Jan. 7 to 214 cases the week of Jan. 21.

The first week back saw 651 students quarantined, but the week of Jan. 28 only had 53, according to district data available on its website. Cases have also dropped to 163.

The highest peak of quarantines for the 2021-22 school year happened the week of Aug. 27 when 1,586 students were quarantined with 286 positive cases.

On the county's Facebook page announcement, many parents chimed in with their thoughts on the close contact policy change, with some for and some against the shift.

Walker County parent Rachel Broom said in a message to the Times Free Press that the change was welcome.

"My daughter who attends Chattanooga Valley was recently sent home to quarantine due to a classmate receiving a positive test," she said. "She was never sick and never got any symptoms during her quarantine time. So I feel as though she just missed out on the curriculum they are studying."

(READ MORE: COVID-19 cases in Hamilton County schools are decreasing, but remain high)

Hope Fults, who has a student at Saddle Ridge School, shared similar sentiments, noting she believed that unless children are always home, they won't know if they are exposed in everyday situations and public spaces like the grocery store and that as long as they show no symptoms, they are better off at school.

"I think it's long overdue," Fults said by Facebook message. "Healthy kids were being made to stay at home and were suffering by not being in class or around peers. It's healthier for them mentally and physically to be at school."

Parent Margaret Hall said she's worried that with a lack of a mask requirement and the natural habits of kids, the policy change is a step in the wrong direction. Her daughter recently contracted COVID-19, and she believes it was from a school dance.

"I feel like it's a little too soon to say 'OK, well, we're going to do away with the close contact guidelines and just, you know, let them come on to school anyway,'" she said in a phone interview. "Kids, they share everything. They drink after one another. They use each other's pencils.

"They do these things, not because they are trying to pass diseases or sickness. But they're kids. And that's just what they do. And I think that the seriousness of the situation has not been expressed here."

Brown noted the district watches case data and trends daily and will make adjustments to COVID-19 policies as needed.

"We're thankful that we've been able to continue to offer in-person instruction for our students while offering a safe environment for our students, staff and community," he said. "We will continue to monitor cases. We'll continue to report cases, and we'll respond accordingly based on the best professional guidance we can glean from the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the [Department of Public Health] on how to keep our community safe and keep our students instructed."

Contact Tierra Hayes at thayes@timesfreepress.com

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