Hamblen students return to school

A year after a year like no other, Hamblen County students returned to classrooms Thursday morning.

It was not completely back to normal as many students came to school wearing masks. It’s the new normal as the Hamblen County school system allows the option of wearing masks for students as the COVID-19 pandemic surges forward.

Dr. Jeff Perry, Hamblen County school superintendent, said there were no issues heading into the new school year except the normal things encountered during the start such as filling out additional paperwork or transportation problems.

“Things seem to be going well,” he said. “We always have those beginning of the year school issues.”

A year ago, the school system stayed closed for another month before opening its doors in September as a COVID-19 surge hit Hamblen County. Even then, when schools did open back up, most students worked virtually from home, while a limited amount of students came to school.

Another surge is hitting the county and the state reported 352 active cases in Hamblen County on Wednesday. The surge comes as the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 becomes the predominant strain across the United States.

The Hancock County school system implemented a mask mandate policy Wednesday after six students tested positive. Perry, though, said there are no steps being taken in Hamblen County at this time to institute any type of mandatory masking.

“At this time, I have no indication from the board of education that they are going to issue a mask mandate,” he said.

Perry has said if any such mandate is discussed there would be a public forum first.

“I’m fully aware the issue of masks have become a strong emotional issue for people on both sides. We currently have a policy in place and if we are going to change that policy we will let people know in advance.”

He said the school system will do its best to make sure all children and staff are safe as the school system opens. Any active cases of COVID-19 within the school system will be posted daily, he said.

Health officials have said the Delta variant has been affecting those younger more than previous version of COVID. This week, Ballad Health, which operates hospitals within the Lakeway Area, said they have had patients come into their pediatric intensive care unit due to complications from the virus.

At this point, the Federal Drug Agency has not approved that those 12 and under are able to be vaccinated, leading them to be more vulnerable.

Perry said the school system is not actively engaging eligible students who are unvaccinated to get vaccinated. He has also said that there are no plans for mandatory vaccinations and is not sure if that would be legal anyway.

“We’ve said vaccinations are a personal decision,” he said. “We’ve strongly encouraged people to get a vaccination.”

Perry said that if any student tests positive then parents of students in close contact with the infected student will be contacted.

Since it is the first day of school, there is no indication that any students are positive at this time. He did say that there have been some staff members test positive who are infected or have been in close contact with people infected. Those staff members are currently in quarantine.

But, he said there is not enough positive cases to warrant any changes.

“At this point, it’s not a lot different than what we would see in a normal school year,” he said.