Knox County Schools administrators have canceled classes for the rest of the week because of "staffing challenges related to illness."
It is the third day in a row Knox County Schools has closed because of pandemic-related staffing shortages, and Friday's closure will make it four. Switching the entire district to virtual learning is no longer an option for Knox County Schools (or any other school district in Tennessee) because only individual schools or classrooms — not entire school districts — can temporarily pivot to remote learning. Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said the waivers are only for individual schools and classrooms.
As of right now, Knox County Schools has not applied for waivers for individual schools, but they aren't ruling them out as a possibility.
"KCS is closely monitoring absences at each of our schools and will be prepared to submit waiver applications to the Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner to allow virtual learning on a school-by-school basis," Knox County School Superintendent Bob Thomas wrote Wednesday in an email to parents Wednesday.
Another complicating factor is that, in most instances, schools can't be proactive with their option to go virtual because staffing shortages happen so quickly that they can't get a waiver in time from the state.
Due to staffing challenges related to illness, Knox County Schools will be closed the remainder of the week, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, and Friday, Jan 21, 2022. Central office, maintenance and custodial staff will report as scheduled. pic.twitter.com/zWGf2HUM0v
— Knox County Schools (@KnoxSchools) January 19, 2022
And virtual learning is challenging for some students. While all students at Knox County Schools have laptops or tablets, students at some schools do not bring those devices home with them, preventing them from quickly switching to the option for remote learning. Many students have been home this week with no device.
For now, Knox County Schools' only district-wide option to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms is to use its banked emergency days, also known as inclement weather days.
"We recognize that any decision to close schools or implement virtual learning can be disruptive for families, and we will continue making every effort to provide timely notice of scheduling decisions," Thomas wrote in the email. So far, Knox County has used seven of its 10 days:
Sept. 27 to prepare for the federally-imposed mask mandate
Jan. 6-7 because of winter weather
Jan. 18-21 because of teacher illness and staffing shortages
Maryville City Schools filed a waiver with the Tennessee Department of Education and received authorization from Schwinn to move Maryville High School and Maryville Junior High to digital instruction for the remainder of the week.
Case counts in the district and beyond
Knox County Schools' COVID-19 case counts have not been updated since last week because of the school closures. On Friday, 95 teachers and 399 students reported active cases of COVID-19.
In greater Knox County, the omicron variant upswing shows no signs of slowing down. Active cases nearly doubled last week from roughly 6,700 to 12,100.
On Jan. 12, the county set a record for new COVID-19 cases with over 1,100 reported in a single day.
Hospitalizations grew by over 100 patients in the 11-county Knoxville Hospitalization District. There were 471 people hospitalized with the disease in the region as of Saturday. Roughly a quarter of those are being treated at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, which has 138 COVID-19 patients.
Thirteen Knox County residents died of COVID-19 last week, bringing January’s total to 20 deaths. This means that one or two people died in Knox County every single day this month, on average, from the pandemic.
Knox County's vaccination rate is 62%, which is far below the national average.
Other school closures
Several other schools have canceled classes for this week.
Anderson County Schools: Due to staffing concerns related to illness, Anderson County Schools will be closed for the remainder of the week
Blount County Schools: Due to staffing concerns, Blount County Schools will be closed the rest of the week.
Grace Christian Academy: Due to an increase in illness and absenteeism, GCA will be closed the rest of the week.
Knoxville Catholic High School: Knoxville Catholic will finish the rest of this week with At-Home Learning due to staffing issues.
Oneida Special School District: School will be closed on Thursday, Jan. 20.
Roane County Schools: Due to staffing issues related to illness, Roane County Schools will be closed for the remainder of this week.
Scott County Schools: School will be closed on Thursday, Jan. 20.
Rebecca Wright: Higher education reporter at Knox News
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Why Knox County Schools canceled classes instead of going virtual