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story.lead_photo.caption Brylee Bolton, left, and Ella Shade work closely with their second-grade teacher, Tori Berendzen, on Tuesday at Blair Oaks Elementary School. The Blair Oaks Board of Education approved a proposal to classify staff members as essential employees. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

The Blair Oaks R-2 School District Board of Education on Tuesday approved a proposal to classify Blair Oaks staff as essential employees, allowing quarantined employees to return to work under certain conditions.

Employees who were identified as close contacts of a COVID-19 patient will now have the option to return to work after a seven-day quarantine period if they aren't showing symptoms and if they follow guidelines from the Cole County Health Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention such as wearing a surgical mask, social distancing and being screened regularly.

If someone who is not considered an essential employee is identified as a close contact, they are required to quarantine for 14 days from the date of last exposure. A close contact is defined by the CDC as someone who is within 6 feet of someone with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes.

The Cole County Health Department data indicates about 5 percent of close contacts in the county later become positive, and those who do generally begin having symptoms within three to eight days after exposure.

While Blair Oaks does not currently have many employees in quarantine, all teachers in one grade were quarantined at one point last month, and many of them asked if they could return to work before their quarantine ended, Superintendent Jim Jones said.

They were able to find substitutes for these teachers, and the teachers also taught the students on Zoom while the students were in the classroom.

"We have not been in a situation of that great a need since then or before then, but we want to make sure that we're planning for whatever situation," Jones said.

The Cole County Commission and Cole County Health Department approved the provision to allow districts to classify staff members as essential employees in September.

The CDC advises that essential employees can continue working after potential exposure to COVID-19 if they remain asymptomatic and take additional precautions to protect them and the community.

The Blair Oaks administrative team reviewed this provision and sought input from families and staff — especially those in the medical field — to streamline the provisions to safely meet needs specific to the district. Jones said he received positive feedback on the provision.

Upon recommendation, administration added that the first seven days of the quarantine period must be observed in order to be eligible for this option.

Each case will be reviewed by the school district and the Health Department before a final decision is made. Families will be notified when a teacher is returning to school before their quarantine period ends, Jones said.

Teachers who are identified as close contacts can return to work if they follow these requirements, approved by the Cole County Health Department, throughout their entire defined quarantine period:

Wear a surgical mask around others.

Stay at least 6 feet away from all students and staff. When this is not possible, all individuals will wear a mask.

Have their temperature checked upon arrival to school daily by the district health services staff and monitored throughout the day. If symptoms arise during the school day, the employee will go home immediately.

Stay home if showing signs of illness.

Not attend nonessential activities such as athletic events and tutoring.

Limit travel to the doctor, pharmacy and school.

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