Since spring break, 49 students in the Johnson City Schools system have tested positive for COVID-19.
System officials have seen a recent uptick in cases over the past few weeks, which they attribute to a combination of factors.
Greg Wallace, the supervisor of safety at the school system, said school officials started noticing the increase the second week after spring break. He said the rise in cases has mirrored trends in the community.
“That’s always been the case in the schools,” Wallace said. “As the community’s numbers go up, certainly the school numbers go up.”
Ballad Health recently reported that it had hit 100 hospitalizations of patients with the disease across its facilities for the first time in two months. The seven-day average of new cases of the virus in Northeast Tennessee also increased from 65.2 on March 8 to 108.8 on April 5. The number of new cases in the region reached their peak in December, hitting a seven-day average of above 600 for about a week.
According to its online COVID-19 dashboard on Tuesday, 236 students across Johnson City’s system are in quarantine, which means they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. A total of 25 students are in isolation, which means they’ve tested positive for COVID-19.
Both of these figures are currently several times higher than they were on March 15, when the system returned from spring break. At that time, 40 students were in quarantine and four were in isolation.
After operating for a while on a hybrid schedule with students physically at school on alternating days, Science Hill High School and Liberty Bell Middle School returned to full in-person learning on March 15. All schools are now back to in-person instruction.
Wallace noted that this means more students can be exposed to COVID-19 if a peer in their classroom contracts the virus, which affects the number of students in quarantine.
Plus, he said, people are starting to get fatigued with COVID-19 precautions.
“We’re all tired of masks, and it’s been over a year,” Wallace said. “We just continue to remind folks that we want to finish strong. We want to continue to follow the guidance of the local health department.”
Travel could also have been a factor, he notes.
Johnson City’s spring break lasted a full week this year — from March 8 to 12 — but Wallace indicated the impact of the time off is unclear.
He reiterated that the return of full in-person learning, which boosted the number of students in schools, and the increase in cases in the community have likely been the biggest factors.
Wallace said the school system’s mitigation strategies have remained largely the same. The system still requires masks, restricts visitation and encourages social distancing as much as possible.
Many Johnson City schools also keep student cohorts together as much as possible and use consistent seating charts to make it easier to identify kids who have been exposed to COVID.
As part of its efforts to limit spread on campus, East Tennessee State University is operating in a “modified stage two” plan during its spring semester.
A fact sheet provided by the university says precautions include conducting more than 80 percent of instruction remotely using D2L and Zoom. Residence halls also have reduced density, and indoor meetings larger than 15 people that aren’t associated with academic coursework are prohibited.
This year, ETSU broke its spring break into three mini-breaks: Feb. 18-19, March 15-16 and April 14. The university said this change is intended to reduce travel and potential spread of the virus.
The university’s COVID-19 dashboard said Tuesday that there are 13 active cases on and off campus. Since September, 711 ETSU faculty and students have recovered from COVID-19.
“As indicated on our COVID-19 Dashboard, these measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on our campus have helped to keep our numbers low,” ETSU spokesman Joe Smith said in a statement. “We are extremely grateful to our students, faculty, and staff for wearing masks, social distancing, and remaining committed to keep one another safe during this time.”