KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — An application to switch to remote learning at Austin-East Magnet High School shows about 26 percent of students and 30 percent of staff are in quarantine or isolation as as active COVID cases in Knox County doubled. The state approved Austin-East witching to remote learning through Friday, Jan. 28.

“We have run out of teachers who can cover classes. Administrators and support staff are covering classes, managing cafeteria during lunch, and handing discipline and support as needed,” school administrators wrote in the Jan. 21 request to switch to virtual learning due to student and staff shortages.

Waivers are only being considered by the state when a local education agency can document and demonstrate a significant impact of COVID-19 quarantine or isolation on school operations, impacting students, teachers, and/or staff. If a waiver request is granted to a school, all extracurricular activities for that school must be cancelled. Waivers are approved by the commissioner or a designee and are valid for seven days. If conditions persist, an additional waiver can be requested.

As Knox County Schools considered a switch to virtual learning, Austin-East in particular said they have been “impacted significantly” due to illness, with 19 to 25 staff absences each day according to the waiver request. Teachers, administrators and staff at Austin-East Magnet High School have prepared for this scenario, as evidenced in their request for a waiver.

“We have dedicated time during out staff meetings and our job-embedded professional learning to making sure that teachers are trained, supported and can transition comfortably to remote learning if needed,” the school assured state officials.

Austin-East has an enrollment of 674 students and experienced an absence rate of 150+ students a day during the week of Jan. 17-21. Staff absences average 19 to 25 each day, with only 1 to 2 subs available to fill those positions.

For the week of Jan 24 to 28, the school wrote that 17 unfulfilled vacancies were expected, with 30 percent of staff projected out.

“We are covering as many classes as we can with teachers on their planning period and combining multiple classes in the auditorium and gym,” the waiver request says.

The staff absence rate is 24% due to COVID, a total that the school notes does not include call ins that occur the night before, or morning of, a return to school.

“Just when we think that we might be recovering, additional staff and/or family members get sick impacting and extending dates of return,” the school said in the waiver request.

The approval signed by Penny Schwinn, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education, says the department “continues to encourage all districts to implement as many mitigation strategies as possible to contain the spread of COVID-19, limit quarantines, and remain in-person.” Those strategies are listed as:

  • The same or enhanced mitigation strategies used last school year such as temperature checks, physical distancing, frequent handwashing etc.
  • Seating charts in all settings, including classrooms, cafeteria/meals, bus routes, etc
  • Proactively stocking non-perishable items for breakfasts/lunches to account for meal staff absences
  • Cohorting students to limit close contacts
  • The consideration of masking.

The school said administrators are working diligently to keep record of student absence records, but warned that the possibility for error increases with fewer staff members.