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'Like dominoes falling' | Knox County Schools closed for remainder of week as illness rises

The district said it would close again Thursday and Friday due to rising cases of COVID-19, colds, flu and other respiratory illnesses among staff members.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn — Cheryl Burchett didn't think much of her son's runny nose. 

The 9-year-old was fully vaccinated and felt fine otherwise. Then, her daughter began feeling sick.

"She was complaining her legs felt weird, her head felt funny, her ear was a little stopped up," Burchett said. "I said we'll test her in the morning. She woke up and said she had chills all night."

Both of her kids tested positive for COVID-19 over the week. While she's fully vaccinated and testing negative, she can't return to the classroom because there's no one to watch them.

"We're now having to watch myself and my husband extra close, because we've been all around the kids," she said. "Normally, we've got family in the area and they're really good about helping out but no, absolutely not. They're not going anywhere with COVID."

Knox County Schools said there were 564 staff absences recorded at the time of Monday's decision. On Tuesday, there were 668 staff absences recorded.

By early Wednesday afternoon, Knox County Schools announced it would stay closed for the rest of the week.

A spokesperson for the district said nearly a quarter of the absences last week were made within an hour of school starting, "which likely means that a considerable number of absences had not yet been recorded."

Burchett is one of the many educators who could not come to work.

"My kids have COVID. They're home for five days. I'm home for five days," she said. "I was frantically trying to arrange to put in for subs and sub-plans and all that stuff."

She said she's grateful the district made the call to close for the week.

"In reality, subs are short right now and lots of teachers are out," Burchett said. "I'm very grateful that we've gotten a little extra time."

Officials said the school system has 878 active substitutes also of Wednesday.

KCS said it hopes the planned closures will be enough time to get people back in the classroom.

"Being closed on Monday and Tuesday, in addition to the weekend, should help decrease exposure to illness and allow our staff to rest and recover," a spokesperson said. "We are continuing to monitor our attendance and will review available data daily."

The district said it's seeing cases of colds, flu and other respiratory illnesses that are common this time of year in addition to COVID cases.

That's something Burchett has noticed among her fellow parents as well.

"It's like dominoes falling. My Facebook feed is full of friends that are saying, 'Now my kid has it, now my kid has it, oh now I have it,'" she said. "We're all just doing the best we can, so let's work together."

A spokesperson from KCS said rules from the Tennessee Board of Education prevent them from implementing virtual learning across the district. They said they were able to move to virtual learning on a school-by-school basis through a request to the state.

They said they are preparing to make the request on Wednesday.

Staff will need to submit a note from a physician or from the Knox Co. Health Department to qualify for paid leave, instead of using sick days. They are accepting COVID-19 home tests for staff who request to stay home, though.

Employees can also submit results from a health care provider to qualify for paid leave, they said.