With the July 31 start of the Hamblen County school year quickly approaching and the county identified as a COVID-19 hotspot by the state of Tennessee, Dr. Jeff Perry, school superintendent, has decided to hit pause.

Hamblen County schools will not open until after Labor Day, Perry announced Friday morning. The first day of school is now set for Sept. 8.

Perry listed several reasons for the delay but said they picked Sept. 8 as a new start date because “this would be the first day that we could realistically provide most of our students with the new computers and could implement a district-wide online program.”

In a statement to teachers and administrators, Perry said that he understands there will be a lot of questions and the system will strive to provide answers over the next several days.

Ultimately, Perry said, the county’s COVID-19 data was too much to overlook.

“We have monitored a number of data points over the last several weeks to ensure we could reopen in a safe and responsible manner.  There are several current factors which are concerning to us,” he said. “First, we have been closely monitoring the sharp increase in positive COVID-19 cases throughout Hamblen County over the last several weeks.   On Thursday, we saw an additional 50 positive cases documented.  We are now within the top 15 counties with the highest infection rate. 

“Second, we have also been closely monitoring the health conditions of our own staff members.  A significant number of employees have been directly exposed to someone in their immediate family which may necessitate a 10- to 14-day isolation period.  These exposures have occurred over the last few days, and we anticipate several staff members may prove to be positive.”  

Perry said those exposures would be a strain on already taut efforts to reduce classroom size.

“We have monitored the teacher/student ratios and have discovered that many classrooms are still in excess of 20:1 despite all of our efforts,” he said. “We are concerned this ratio is too high and will not allow us to maintain appropriate social distancing within the classroom. We are concerned that we could not protect the safety of staff and students under these ratios and the high infection rate.”

The combined issues indicate a stronger possibility Hamblen County will need to go online for at least some period of time.

However, Perry noted the laptop computers necessary for such a move, which were ordered in the late spring, are not expected to arrive until the end of August.

“We currently do not have enough computers to provide each student with a laptop if we decided to go online.  The computers are scheduled to be here at the end of August, but we do not have enough to go fully online at this time,” Perry said. “It is important to note that these computers have been ordered for a long period of time, but the virus and increased demand has significantly increased the production/delivery time.”

For more see today's edition of the Citizen Tribune.