Officials said that in several cases, the virus spread after unsanctioned student social gatherings outside of school, including parent-organized parties for band members and sports teams.
The district had no plans to change anything for the spring semester, Barbara Jacoby, a spokeswoman for the schools, said in an email in December. “As long as we are operating in-person school during a pandemic, there will be positive cases among students and staff due to the virus circulating in our community,” she wrote.
All that changed on Jan. 8, when the superintendent, Brian V. Hightower, took a drastically different position in an email to families: More than 400 teachers and other staff members couldn’t report to school, he said, because they were infected or quarantined, and there weren’t enough substitutes to fill in.
“Cases are higher in our community, our state and our nation than ever before,” Mr. Hightower said. “Health experts are voicing concerns that a new Covid-19 strain now circulating in our nation will spread faster among everyone, including school-age children. Our hospitals are full.”
As a result, he closed all of the district’s schools and shifted to remote learning for at least a week to allow students, families and staff members “to get healthier.” Then it became at least two weeks. Dr. Hightower said the district remained committed to in-person instruction but could not operate safely with so many staff absences.
Tiffany Robbins, an English teacher at Dean Rusk Middle School and the president of the Cherokee Educators Association, bemoaned the fact that it took a staffing crisis for the schools to take significant action. “It’s not about safety,” she said.
She said that many people in the district had shown little interest in slowing down the virus, and that the constant disruptions had been the cost: “Our community hasn’t looked at this and said, ‘Oh, wow, maybe we could do something to mitigate the spread.’”