Kemp ’very sensitive’ to both sides of teacher quarantine argument

August 26, 2020 Lawrenceville - Students wearing masks arrive to Jackson Elementary School for the first day of school amid the coronavirus outbreak on Wednesday, August 26, 2020. Only kindergartners, first graders and special ed students are coming back, and half the district's students overall have chosen to have in-person instruction this semester. Students are required to wear masks. Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp is hearing from teachers and superintendents as he weighs whether to exclude educators from the state’s quarantine requirement.

Some had expected the extended order on coronavirus restrictions he issued Monday to include a new definition of teachers as “critical” workers, thus exempting them from the two-week quarantine required of most who come into contact with someone thought to have COVID-19.

Kemp did not reclassify teachers but said Tuesday that he still might.

Superintendents concerned about forced school closures due to a depleted workforce have been pushing him to exclude teachers from the stay-at-home requirement. Teacher groups, concerned about the health and safety of their members, have pushed him the other way.

“I’m very sensitive to both of those arguments, which is why this is such a delicate subject,” Kemp said Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently added teachers to its list of “Critical Infrastructure” workers, but Kemp’s latest executive order refers to an earlier list without them in it.

Workers on that list who are in short supply are exempt from a Georgia requirement to quarantine if exposed to someone known or suspected to have COVID-19. A July 28 order by state Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey requires a 14-day isolation period if the contact was within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes. Her order exempts asymptomatic critical infrastructure workers “if necessary to ensure adequate staffing.”

Most of the state’s local school superintendents — 139 — said in a recent survey that educators should be deemed essential workers, with only 12 opposed to the idea.

“We will not be able to operate if our teachers are not considered exempt under critical infrastructure,” one of them told Toomey during a July 31 conference call, according to a written record of the meeting obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the state open records act.

Georgia State University law professor Tanya Washington said reclassifying teachers as critical workers would clarify a gray area of the law since school districts such as Forsyth County have asserted that their teachers are critical workers.

Floyd County in northwest Georgia had to back off such a declaration after Kemp intervened there. The district closed three schools after receiving guidance from the governor on Aug. 19 that said teachers were not critical infrastructure workers.

“FCS is implementing these precautionary measures because of the Governor’s Office’s written guidance, and NOT because of any sudden or dramatic increase in positive COVID-19 cases,” an explanation on the district website says.

Floyd has now declared that students need not follow quarantine rules. In a new notice on its website, the district says asymptomatic students who have consistently covered their face at school can break quarantine and return to the classroom this week, where masks are mandated.

Floyd Superintendent Glenn White said there have been “mixed messages” from the state, which has issued guidance that appears to be more recommendation than mandate. He said other superintendents told him the Department of Public Health told them healthy students didn’t have to quarantine.

White said parents mostly seem to want their kids in school. “We cannot have school without teachers and students. If that’s not essential, I really don’t know what essential is,” he said, noting that parents don’t have to break their child’s quarantine and can only do so if their child is not obviously infected or living with someone who is. “If I really thought it was endangering anybody I would not let those kids come back.”

Kemp’s office is watching the situation in Floyd. “We know about it and we’re reviewing it with public health,” the governor’s communications director and chief deputy executive counsel, Candice Broce, said.

Washington, the law professor, said a governor’s order reclassifying teachers as critical infrastructure would not only bring clarity but also buffer school districts from liability if people were to suffer serious health consequences because they got infected by a teacher told not to quarantine. “It would make it more difficult for them to bring lawsuits for liability if there’s an executive order,” she said.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators said it was pleased Kemp “did not rush” to reclassify teachers Monday, and the Georgia Association of Educators said they appreciated his “measured approach” and hope educators can work remotely until they feel it is safe to return to school.

Kemp said he is sensitive to arguments for and against reclassifying teachers.

“There’s some teachers out there that I’ve heard from, that superintendents have talked to me about, who want to be classified” as exempt, he said. “They don’t want to have to go to quarantine just because they have, you know, a close contact for just a few minutes.”

Then again, he said, “You have other teachers that we’re hearing from who are really scared about being put in the position where they would go back. Especially if you have somebody who’s medically fragile.”