How are East Tennessee schools handling illness?

With a recent surge in COVID-19 cases and the peak of flu season nearing, many East Tennessee schools are taking extra steps to protect students from illness.
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Kids in masks(WRDW)
Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 10:35 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 13, 2022 at 10:43 AM EST
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - With a recent surge in COVID-19 cases and the peak of flu season nearing, many East Tennessee schools are taking extra steps to protect students from illness.

WVLT News reached out to school districts around East Tennessee to learn what they are doing to address the recent rise in COVID-19 cases and other common illnesses.

Below is a list of school districts’ efforts to curb illness inside facilities.

Alcoa City Schools

WVLT News spoke with Director of Schools Rebecca Stone about what Alcoa City Schools is doing to address illness. According to Stone, Alcoa City Schools is not seeing more student illness than normal this time a year, but illness is affecting staff.

“We always have some flu and stomach bugs this time of year. We are seeing a lot of staff out with sickness more than normal. Currently, I have almost 25 staff out (across my 4 buildings) with illness,” Stone said.

Stone added that schools are being deep cleaned and sprayed down with disinfectant, and asked that parents keep their sick children at home.

Clinton City Schools

Kelly Johnson with Clinton City Schools told WVLT News that the district is seeing some increase in cases, but is not planning a district-wide transition to online learning at the time. Students that are required to quarantine due to exposure or a positive COVID-19 test are able to learn online while away from school.

Clinton City Schools janitorial staff deep clean classrooms each night as well, Johnson said. Staffing has not been an issue yet, she added.

Johnson asks that parents monitor their children and keep sick students home.

“The single best mitigation strategy is keeping sick and exposed students and staff members at home. Student attendance is greatly affected when we have to contact trace and send healthy students home for quarantine due to a positive student case in the classroom,” Johnson said.

Grainger County Schools

James Atkins with Grainger County Schools told WVLT News that the district is seeing a major increase in cases from the fall semester.

“For example, at one elementary school, I had 3 with COVID in mid-December and we now have over 20 that have tested positive for COVID at the present time. Currently, we are not looking at virtual learning or closing the schools,” Atkins said.

Illness has mostly affected staffing, according to Atkins, creating a shortage of substitutes.

“Currently, we repurpose our employees by using them in other positions because of a shortage of substitutes,” Atkins said.

Custodial staff has increased efforts, Atkins added, asking that parents test sick children for COVID-19 before coming to school.

Hamblen County Schools

Hamblen County Schools has seen an increase in COVID-19 cases, according to Superintendent Jeff Perry. They are also having trouble finding substitute teachers.

“We are taking extra precautions to get folks safe but are keeping school open for now,” Perry said. “Encourage parents to monitor symptoms at home, don’t send kids to school who are sick, and have them talk with children about basic safe health practices.”

Jefferson County Schools

While Jefferson County Schools has seen an increase in cases due to Winter Break, case levels have not reached the point they were at around Labor Day, Shane Johnston told WVLT News.

Illness has impacted staffing, but no more than it has at other points in the pandemic, Johnston said.

“This has not been significantly different this semester than the previous several months. Some days have higher unfilled substitute requests than other days, but our principals work to get those classes and assignments covered,” Johnston said.

Custodial staff has increased efforts in high-traffic areas as well, according to Johnston.

Loudon County Schools

Loudon County Schools has also seen an increase in COVID-19 cases this semester, according to Mike Garren with the district.

“We have experienced an increase this week in the number of positive cases, however as of now our staffing hasn’t been significantly impacted. We have no current plans of requesting a waiver for remote learning or closing schools,” said Garren.

Loudon County Schools is also sanitizing facilities regularly.

“Our custodial staff has continued enhanced cleaning protocols since the beginning of last year. Parents just need to continue being our partner by keeping their child home if they are sick,” said Garren.

Maryville City Schools

Maryville City Schools is no longer quarantining COVID-positive students if they are asymptomatic, according to a letter sent to parents. School district officials said this is due to state legislation, but the legislation passed was blocked by a federal judge shortly after being signed by Gov. Bill Lee.

WVLT News reached out to Mike Winstead, director of schools for Maryville City Schools, for an update. He told WVLT News that student and staff absences are elevated compared to other years, but the school district is not planning on moving to online learning soon.

Winstead also told WVLT News that Maryville City Schools is having some trouble keeping classified staff, like non-teachers and cafeteria staff. He asks that parents keep sick children at home.

Morgan County Schools

David Treece, the Director of Morgan County Schools, told WVLT News that the district has seen a slight elevation in positive cases compared to the fall semester. About 1% of the district is testing positive at this time, Treece said.

“Currently, we are able to utilize substitutes or other employees to replace absent staff and maintain in-person learning. If staff absences reach such a threshold that we are unable to provide coverage, our district team will apply for a TN Dept. of Education waiver to transition to a temporary status of remote learning for the individual schools or grade bands impacted,” Treece said.

Custodial staff has also increased cleaning efforts in Morgan County Schools, Treece said.

Newport Grammar School

Sandra Burchette with Newport Grammar School tells WVLT News that staff has increased cleaning since the beginning of the pandemic. School officials are also monitoring the spike in COVID cases, though there is no plan at this time to move to online learning.

“We do not plan on going virtual but will watch the spike in cases. An increase in numbers could possibly change our decision,” Burchette said.

The school is also using a grant to provide students and staff with COVID-19 tests, with parent permission.

Oak Ridge Schools

Holly Cross with Oak Ridge Schools tells WVLT News that the district is following the same COVID-19 policy as last semester. Oak Ridge Schools is following guidance from the Tennessee Department of Health and sanitizing facilities regularly, Cross said.

“As you know, keeping students and staff safe is our number one priority throughout the pandemic. We have made no changes to COVID policy this semester,” Cross said. “Additionally, our maintenance has been phenomenal with sanitation practices throughout the pandemic.”

Oneida City Schools

WVLT News spoke with Jeanny Phillips about how Oneida City Schools is handling illness. According to Phillips, custodial staff has increased cleaning efforts.

Phillips asks that parents monitor their child’s health for possible flu or COVID-19 symptoms.

“If they are sick please see the nurses in our school clinic’s via our telehealth program or visit your local provider,” Phillips said.

Sevier County Schools

Sevier County Schools has had an easier time with COVID-19. Tony Ogle, a representative with the school, said the district saw a major fall in cases over the fall semester. Ogle also said that Sevier County Schools has seen an increase in flu this year.

School officials are still following pandemic-height cleaning practices at Sevier County schools, Ogle said.

“Our janitorial staff members have continued the cleaning protocols that we have utilized since the beginning of the pandemic, with high traffic areas addressed multiple times throughout the day and entire buildings cleaned nightly,” Ogle said. “Buses are also cleaned prior to each route. Electrostatic sprayers are used in each of these instances.”

Ogle also told WVLT News that the district is facing staffing challenges, especially in bus drivers.

Union County Schools

While case counts are trending up in Union County Schools, they are not doing so at an alarming rate, Director James Carter told WVLT News. At times, lack of teachers due to illness has affected substitute numbers, but Union County Schools has been able to adjust staff teacher schedules to keep schools open, he said.

Carter also had a message to Union County parents.

“Our parents have been great throughout this pandemic. They, like us, have had moments of stress and “burnout” with the whole process. What our parents need to know is that we appreciate them,” Carter said.

Below is a resource from the Tennessee Department of Health aimed at helping schools handle in-person learning.

WVLT News has reached out to several other East Tennessee school districts and will update this list as we learn more.

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