Kemp’s latest order doesn’t reclassify teachers as critical workers; still ‘weighing’ decision

Gov. Brian Kemp’s extended order of coronavirus restrictions issued Monday did not include something that many teachers feared but superintendents wanted: a new designation for educators that could exempt them from quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently added teachers to its definition of the “Critical Infrastructure” workforce. But Kemp didn’t include that list in his latest public health emergency order, staying with the version issued by the federal government in April.

“I can confirm that we did not reclassify teachers,” Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce said in an email Monday, adding, “We’re still weighing the decision.”

The Georgia Department of Public Health wants people to isolate themselves for two weeks if they have been exposed to others known or suspected to have COVID-19. A July 28 order by Commissioner Kathleen Toomey requires a 14-day isolation period if the contact was within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes. Her order exempts workers defined by the federal government as critical infrastructure “if necessary to ensure adequate staffing,” as long as they are asymptomatic, wear a mask and comply with other quarantine requirements over the two weeks.

Superintendents have pushed to label teachers as critical workers, worrying that quarantines will quickly deplete their workforce and force school closures. Teacher groups have opposed the idea, saying it would put the health of educators at risk.

Most of the state’s local school superintendents — 139 — said in a recent Georgia School Superintendents Association 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 already asserted that their teachers are critical workers.

A governor’s order reclassifying teachers would also buffer school districts from liability if people suffered serious health consequences because they got infected by a teacher told not to quarantine, Washington said. “It would make it more difficult for them to bring lawsuits for liability if there’s an executive order.”

Broce, Kemp’s spokesperson, said the governor is still soliciting input about the proposal.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators has given some input already and will be giving more, said Margaret Ciccarelli, the group’s legislative services director. She said PAGE was pleased that Kemp “did not rush to reclassify educators” as workers who need not quarantine. She said the group wants “more robust” virus reporting in schools and stronger paid leave policies for educators exposed to the virus.

Lisa Morgan, a DeKalb County teacher and president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said her group appreciated Kemp’s “measured approach” to decisions about reopening schools. “We all agree that public education is essential but educators can work remotely when possible and we should be encouraging them to do so” until community transmission and spread of the coronavirus are under control, she said.