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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Senior engineering majors Eduardo Baez and Erik Loredo walk toward the University Center on campus at UTC on Aug. 17, in Chattanooga. It was the first day of in-person classes since March, when all University of Tennessee schools moved to virtual classes in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

We'd like to believe the headlines that would lead us to think the COVID-19 crisis is easing. But it's too soon to believe that.

Take this one, for instance: "Social gatherings, not school, driving Hamilton County's COVID-19 spike in young people, officials say."

But call us skeptical when we see facts and data colliding.

* Fact: Hamilton County schools resumed in-person learning on Aug. 12, alternating a two-day-a-week schedule for most students until this past Monday when five-day-a-week in-school classes resumed.

* Data: New COVID-19 cases among Hamilton County residents age 11-20 increased 77% between Aug. 1 and Sept. 1., and 35% between Aug. 12 and Sept. 1 — representing the largest increase in new cases of any age group during those same timeframes.

Further, in the past two weeks, officials say, 208 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed in Hamilton County's 11-20 age group. The only age group with more new cases during that same period was the 21-30-year-old bracket, with 242 new cases.

Local health and school officials blame "social gatherings such as field trips, parties, sporting events, carpooling and close contact with friends," according to a statement from the Hamilton County Health Department. Schools spokesman Tim Hensley said that in the first three weeks of class, only four of the district's 171 confirmed COVID-19 cases in students may have been linked to "classroom activity."

Let's not parse words to strain credulity.

"Field trips, parties, sporting events, carpooling and close contact with friends" are part of school — just as "classroom activity" is part of school.

Call it what it is. School. In the time of a very contagious and dangerous virus.

No, we're not saying the sky is falling and schools should close. We feel fairly confident that our school leaders are doing pretty much all that is humanly possible to keep our children and teachers safe and healthy. But this is 2020, the year of the novel coronavirus and we have, since mid-March, seen 8,217 confirmed and probable cases and 78 deaths in Hamilton County, according to state counts. Our "positivity" rate for COVID-19 tests was 8.4% at the end of July, 3.4 points higher than the maximum 5% health officials say would reflect "containment." Though officials said that rate had fallen to 4.8% toward the end of August, we all know kids are illness superspreaders.

Hensley confirmed Thursday that about 30% of Hamilton County's more than 44,000 students are signed up for virtual school rather than in-person school. Additionally, depending on local officials estimation of how the virus is spreading, in-person school could become virtual school on some or all days of a week..

That 30% of students in virtual classes never go to in-person classes, freeing up space to help educators keep young people social distancing inside school buildings. Every little bit helps.

But the fact remains that this is a serious time. So serious, that Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger on Thursday extended the county's mask mandate through Oct. 8 — the order he and local health officials put in place in July with the intent of bringing our numbers down enough to open schools and, as he reiterated this week, "get tourism back in here."

August was the deadliest month for COVID-19 thus far in our county. We lost 27 people — on average a person a day — compared to the previous high of 18 in July. This month seems to be following the August trend. Today is Sept. 4 and three people have died this month from COVID-19, though officials say our new cases are falling.

We're glad to hear that, but we mustn't let down our guard. Just across our state line to the south, Georgia reports that more than 3,000 public university students and employees across the Peach State have tested positive for the novel coronavirus since Aug. 1. In fact, 4% of all cases recorded in Georgia in the last month have been associated with university campuses, according to figures kept by The Associated Press. The number may actually be higher because some schools, including the state's largest — Georgia State University — are not posting full reports publicly. The University of Georgia alone reported 821 new infections for the week that ended Saturday.

We know kids — from kindergarteners to college seniors — play hard. And they especially play hard as a part of school. We expect that and we want them to do so. Humans are social animals. It's how we learn and grow.

But it's how COVID-19 grows, too. And despite the lies on social media and among our president's newest health advisers, we won't reach a herd immunity by just letting the virus wreak its havoc. And unlike this week's newest viral misinformation, retweeted, of course, by our president, people do die of COVID, not some underlying disease.

This pandemic is far from over, and we need to be clear about that.

Vanderbilt infectious disease expert Dr. William Schaffner put it this way in a recent Associated Press report about cases easing in the Sunbelt but expected to roar back with Labor Day outings and school starts:

"It's been a summer of fire, not ice," Schaffner said. "If anything, we've learned that this virus is even nastier than we thought it was in the spring."

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