All teachers will be on the frontlines when school buildings reopen. But in some cases, they might formally be considered essential workers, which means they'll be expected to continue to go to work even if they've been exposed to COVID-19.
Backed by the White House, a handful of states have given the green light for teachers to be considered critical infrastructure workers, and in at least Tennessee and Florida, some districts already have put that policy in place. While most people who've been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 are advised to quarantine for two weeks, critical workers like teachers in those districts are told to keep working after an exposure, as long as they aren't displaying symptoms and take other safety precautions.
Designating teachers as essential allows districts to more easily maintain staffing levels to keep school buildings open-a daunting task, given the expected shortage of available substitute teachers and requirements that staff members stay home with even mild symptoms that could be tied to COVID-19, such as a sore throat or cough. But it also increases the risk that the coronavirus could spread throughout the school community, public health experts say.
While it's unclear how many states have given districts leeway to designate teachers as essential, the Trump administration has given the practice its blessing. On Aug. 18, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency released updated guidance that added teachers and teachers' aides to the list of critical infrastructure workers. Other employees on the list include doctors, police officers, firefighters, and grocery store workers.
The list is not a federal directive, but it reinforces what the White House has been saying for weeks now: School buildings must reopen, and teachers must report to work.
"[I]t is our firm belief that our schools are essential places of business, if you will, that our teachers are essential personnel," said White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany in a press briefing in late July. "Our meatpackers were meatpacking because they were essential workers. Our doctors were out there treating because they're essential workers. And we believe our teachers are essential."
Yet educators say this designation would put them and students at risk. Many have already been fighting against returning to school buildings, saying it's not safe to reopen. The possibility of being declared essential workers has only increased anxiety levels.
The White House has "not actually gotten us the [personal protective equipment] that would make schools safe, they have not gotten us the testing that would make schools safe, they have not done anything on a national basis to stop the virus," said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. "They think teachers are dispensable."
About half of the 700 districts in Education Week's database on school reopenings, which is not nationally representative, have opted to resume in-person instruction at least some days of the week, including four of the 25 largest districts. Those districts are now trying to figure out the logistics of running school buildings during a pandemic.
In the Martin County, Fla., school district, officials told employees the day before school started that they would be considered essential workers and would not have to quarantine after known exposure. A district spokeswoman told news site WPTV that this decision was made to maintain adequate staffing levels to continue providing full-time instruction, as required by the state.
The spokeswoman said teachers who have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 would receive free rapid testing and know within 24 hours if they are positive, too. Rapid tests have a higher inaccuracy rate than other tests, however, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that they cannot be used to definitively rule out infections. The district also plans to determine who has to go into work upon exposure on a case-by-case basis.
Still, one teacher, who did not want to be identified, told WPTV that teachers were "freaked out."
"I thought the timing absolutely was horrendous," the teacher said. "You don't tell me the day before school starts that all of a sudden, I'm an essential worker."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that anybody who was within six feet of someone with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes should quarantine for 14 days, unless the exposed person has had COVID-19 within the last three months. Quarantining helps prevent spreading the disease before a person knows they are sick or if they don't feel symptoms.
"Symptom screenings and fever checks are a nice way to reassure us that someone is not actively ill, but it's insufficient when it comes to COVID," said Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist and an assistant professor of preventative medicine at Northwestern University's school of medicine. She added that up to 30 percent of people infected with the coronavirus never display symptoms but can still spread the virus. And it can also take a few days for symptoms to show up after exposure.
Districts that want to have teachers come back to the classroom without quarantining upon exposure should have an infrastructure in place for rapid testing, Khan said. Other safety precautions include mask wearing, physical distancing, and proper ventilation systems-but those would all have to be perfect, she said.
Otherwise, having teachers who have been exposed to COVID-19 return to the classroom without quarantining could be "propagating an outbreak-not just in the school, but also in the students' homes, and the teachers' homes, and the local community," Khan said.
In Tennessee, at least six districts have designated employees as critical infrastructure workers. The commissioners of the state departments of health and education sent a letter on Aug. 18 to all superintendents saying that they would accept the designation-but urged caution, warning that it could "present a greater opportunity for COVID-19 transmission within schools."
Districts that declare teachers to be essential workers must take precautions, the letter says, including requiring teachers who have been exposed to wear face masks and to self-quarantine when not at school. Also, teachers who live with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and cannot avoid close contact must quarantine, the state commissioners said, regardless of the district's policy.
Even so, teachers in those districts are "quite alarmed," said Beth Brown, the president of the Tennessee Education Association. "It's just absolutely negligent to eliminate quarantine as a virus-fighting tool," she said.
And while some policymakers-including White House officials-have argued that teachers are just as essential as health-care professionals, law-enforcement officials, and other critical infrastructure employees, all of whom must keep reporting to work in order to keep the country running, Brown said it's not a fair comparison. Schools are not set up to effectively social distance, she said, and the spring semester proved that teachers can do their jobs remotely.
Some districts across the country have told teachers that if they are feeling well but are under quarantine orders, they can teach from home via webcam, while an aide is in the classroom with students to monitor behavior and help facilitate lessons.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp's administration is evaluating whether to incorporate the federal guidance into the state's legal framework, according to the Associated Press.
"We've had some superintendents reach out to ask where the administration is on this topic," the governor's spokeswoman Candice Broce told the AP. "We're in the soliciting-input mode."
The Forsyth County district, outside Atlanta, had initially designated all school employees to be essential workers, but reversed course after a lawyer for Kemp told the district it would have to wait until the state makes a decision, according to the AP.
In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Dr. Caitlin Pedati, an epidemiologist and the medical director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, told reporters in a press conference early this month that the state would allow teachers to serve as essential workers if there's a workforce shortage and safety measures are taken, including monitoring teachers' symptoms and temperature twice a day and having a plan in place in case teachers do fall ill.
It's not clear if any Iowa districts have set policies that would designate teachers as essential workers.
Meanwhile, the South Carolina public health agency has told districts that asymptomatic teachers and school staff can continue to work after exposure "if it is necessary to maintain school operations and staff limitations exist." Those educators should be vigilant about social distancing, always wear a mask, and isolate if they do develop symptoms. They should also quarantine in their home when not at work, the agency said.
Ryan Brown, the spokesman for the state education department, said in an email that he's not aware of any districts that have deemed teachers as critical infrastructure workers at this time, but many may choose to do so for school nurses.
Being considered essential workers would further raise the anxiety levels of teachers in the state, said Sherry East, the president of the South Carolina Education Association. Teachers, she said, are already scared enough at the thought of returning to the classroom.
"We always feel like we're essential, but if the tagline 'essential' puts us in danger, we don't want that," she said. "We're not medical professionals. ... We're here to educate your children."