Teachers as critical workers: Does ‘essential’ mean ensnared?

Educators wary of possible policy change that could send them back to classroom after exposure to COVID-19

In normal times, many teachers would appreciate being dubbed essential. This pandemic is not a normal time. Some educators contend being labeled “essential” is less a recognition than a restraint to tether them to the classroom after a possible exposure to COVID-19.

Gov. Brian Kemp is still mulling over whether to exclude Georgia educators from the state’s quarantine requirement by adding them to the “critical” workers category, which would then exempt them from the two-week quarantine required of most people who come into contact with someone with COVID-19.

A Georgia Department of Public Health order mandates a 14-day isolation period if the contact with an infected person was within six feet for at least 15 minutes. But the order does not apply to asymptomatic critical infrastructure workers “if necessary to ensure adequate staffing.”

The pressure to reclassify teachers as essential workers comes in part from superintendents, who are struggling to staff classrooms as teachers quarantine. In a recent statewide survey, 139 superintendents agreed that educators should become essential workers; a dozen disagreed.

Among those who agreed was Carole Jean Carey, superintendent of schools in Warren County. But Carey says she had a different definition of essential workers in mind when she assented. “When schools closed down last spring, we could call in those essential to the infrastructure and services of the school. I wrote letters for these staff members so that if they were stopped during the lockdown, they could show that they were essential workers for our system,” said Carey.

“I had no idea the words ‘essential workers’ now mean that you could call someone to work who was sick or exposed,” she said in an email. “I was just disheartened that I could have voted ‘yes’ on a survey that would make superintendents look like we want to call sick teachers into the building to infect others.”

“As for myself, I can say that I would never consider calling in a teacher or letting a teacher stay on campus if they had COVID symptoms, tested positive or knew that they were asymptomatic positive. Our system put in every safety measure possible to include disinfectant in the air conditioning system, taking temperatures twice a day, using the A/B schedule so that we could social distance at every grade level, eliminating elective classes like music, art, and PE or social distancing could not be practiced, setting up disinfectant stations all over the school, and instituting masks as a part of our uniform dress code. We did not have one problem with any of the safety measures.”

But when COVID-19 cases spiked in Warren County, Carey said. “I could no longer keep the staff safe. We serve a minority, poverty, rural system where most of our children and many of our staff members live in the homes with grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Many of our staff members have serious health problems. After beginning school with almost no spread in our community and few active cases, the spike was so ridiculous that we had to stop the face to face instruction after one week.; 42% of our children had already elected to learn from home.”

(Warren is now planning a return to half-day classes four days a week for its pre-k, kindergarten and first grade students on Sept 14. Students in second through 12th grades will remain virtual for the rest of the first nine weeks.)

The National Council of State Legislatures says 20 states defer to federal guidance on who is considered an essential worker. Until three weeks ago, teachers were not on that federal list. However, updated guidance from the Trump’s administration now includes teachers to be “critical infrastructure workers.”

The White House’s action spurred concerns from educators, including National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García.

“Educators have always gone above and beyond to engage their students and serve their communities, and this has been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Eskelsen García. “The Trump administration’s threats to designate teachers as ‘essential workers’ has no legal merit and is more of a rhetorical gambit to give President Trump and those governors who are disregarding the advice and guidance from public health experts an excuse to force educators into unsafe schools. Parents, teachers and school staff need a real plan to reopen school buildings safely; they don’t need a shallow heartwarming sentiment that exposes students, educators and their families to a deadly virus.”

In an Aug. 26 letter to the governor, Craig Harper, executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said, “We respectfully request that you consider as the first priority whether allowing educators to continue to work without safeguards following a known exposure to COVID-19 is the right thing for our schools and communities as we fight to stop the spread of coronavirus. All of us would prefer that schools could open, stay open, and return to their place as a vital center of community life. However, ignoring the high probability of continued community spread through elimination of quarantine protocols ensures prolonged health and safety issues for all Georgians.”

PAGE said it realizes Department of Public Health guidelines requiring teachers and other non-essential workers to quarantine for two weeks after close contact with COVID-19 contributes to staffing challenges in some school districts. But it warns that reclassifying teachers as essential workers “would eliminate educator quarantine requirements following documented close contact exposure to COVID-19, thereby placing Georgia’s 1.8 million public school students – and the educators and school personnel who serve them – at greater risk of exposure and infection.”

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