Hamblen County listed as ‘Red Zone’ in White House COVID-19 report; schools reopen as planned

Tennessee

MORRISTOWN, Tenn. (WATE) — Hamblen County made it to a list of areas in Tennessee considered in the “red zone,” reported in a White House document regarding COVID-19 cases.

The document was obtained by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization based in Washington, D.C. which said the document was shared within the federal government but does not appear to have been shared publicly.

The document, dated July 14, says the areas in the red zone are those that reported during the last week both new cases above 100 per 100,000 population and a diagnostic test positivity rate at about 10%.

Hamblen County was one of two counties in East Tennessee listed on the document. The other was Sevier County.

Despite the rise in cases in Hamblen County, the school district will reopen July 31 as planned.

Jeff Perry, superintendent of the district, hadn’t read the report as of Friday night but said he is concerned about the rising number of cases.

“Clearly, the numbers are alarming. Clearly, those particular numbers are a part of the decision-making process that would lead us to making a final decision,” Perry said.

Although, he said, a national report doesn’t capture the full picture.

“It’s not just the number of cases and I think that is one of the things our nation us struggling with right now, is that these are numbers. The numbers are important, but it is also a number that you have to take in relation with a lot of other numbers,” Perry said.

Perry said that with his district reopening soon, he talks with a member of the Hamblen County COVID-19 Task Force almost every day, and takes a look at several factors every day.

“There is no magical number. We have talked about that on several different occasions, and it’s a variety of data points. There’s not going to be one single trigger that will make us, or that will lead us to a decision,” Perry said.

He said that while they look at the number of reported cases, they also compare that to the severity of the cases and the capacity of hospitals.

Hamblen County did report two additional deaths as of July 14.

Perry did say that because of the growing number of COVID-19 cases, the district decided to push back the deadline for parents to choose whether their children attend online or in-person classes.

“You may stay at home. You can enroll in the online option. You’re going to receive a quality education, and you never have to leave your home. We still have you enrolled in school, you’re still on track to graduate with a regular diploma,” Perry said.

So far, Perry said only about 20% of parents chose the online platform, but they have until July 30 to decide.

Perry said the district was also making changes to increase safety of staff and students.

The district ordered face shields for teachers to wear when they need to get within six feet of students or other staff.

Next week, they will also start a campaign in which students from different organizations will show the importance of masks.

He said that before the district chooses to go totally online due to COVID-19, they have to weigh out the pros and cons of not having in-person classes.

“There’s not a single day that goes by in this county that we don’t have to contact social services or children services for a child who’s been neglected, abused, or assaulted,” Perry said.

He said while students are home, they are also dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts, and they cannot see a counselor at the schools.

Perry said the negative impacts are also educational.

“The most important factor in any instructional program is not the curriculum, it’s not the materials. It is the relationship and interactions between that educator and that student. Teaching online will make those particular relationships much more difficult,” Perry said.

While the number of cases continued to grow in the county over the summer, 100 plus Hamblen County students attend summer school. Perry said.

He said none of the students he knew of tested positive for COVID-19, but two staff members did.

Perry said that however, 100 plus students in one school will not be the same as 600 plus students.

He said the decision to continue in-person classes was not set in stone. It can change at any time depending on the current situation, including after school starts July 31.

“Every day is a new decision. Every day is an opportunity to look at the data, to determine if it is safe enough to open up the school. And, do the risk factors of going to school outweigh the risk factors of remaining closed,” Perry said.

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