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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.

As more teachers are in quarantine and fewer substitutes are available amid the COVID-19 pandemic, some Cole County schools have classified teachers as essential employees to allow quarantined teachers to return to work under certain conditions.

The Cole County R-1 School District Board of Education in Russellville approved classifying teachers as essential workers Sept. 17, and Lighthouse Preparatory Academy approved it Sept. 21.

Other schools, including the Blair Oaks R-2 School District, Calvary Lutheran High School, Trinity Lutheran High School and Lighthouse Preparatory Academy in Jefferson City approved it this week.

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 essential employees may continue working after potential exposure to COVID-19 if they remain asymptomatic and take additional precautions to protect themselves and the community.

Employees in these schools who were identified as close contacts of a COVID-19 patient may have the option to return to work after a seven-day quarantine period if they aren't showing symptoms and if they follow these guidelines from the Cole County Health Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

-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 regularly.

-Stay home if showing signs of illness.

-If symptoms arise during the school day, go home immediately.

-Do not attend nonessential activities such as athletic events and tutoring.

-Limit travel to essential places such as the doctor's office, pharmacy and school.

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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.

Cole County Health Department data indicate 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.

The Russellville school district has had four teachers return to work after a seven-day quarantine period, Superintendent Perry Gorrell said. The district looks at the contact teachers who wish to return to school have had with others before allowing them to return, Gorrell said.

For example, if a teacher's spouse or child tests positive for COVID-19 and the teacher is therefore a close contact, the teacher will not be allowed to return. But if the teacher is a close contact from exposure at school, for instance, the district will monitor his or her health for at least seven days before allowing him or her to return.

The district allows this option only if it cannot find a substitute teacher to fill in, Gorrell said.

Russellville usually has 10-12 substitutes available. This year, it has seven due to a substitute teacher shortage, and many of them can work only on certain days. Many people who normally substitute are retired teachers who don't want to risk contracting the virus, Gorrell said.

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.

"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.

Although it has been a challenge, Blair Oaks, Calvary Lutheran and Trinity Lutheran have been able to find substitutes to fill in for teachers. But administrators said they wanted to have the option for teachers in quarantine to return to work.

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While other schools and districts are approving this provision, the Jefferson City School District — which has two schools closed due to a staffing shortage — decided to not move forward with the proposal because of concerns from staff.

Other schools, such as Blair Oaks and Calvary Lutheran, received positive feedback from staff — some even requesting the school or district approve the provision, according to school administrators.

JC Schools Superintendent Larry Linthacum said the district would revisit the consideration in four to six weeks.

Lewis and Clark and Thomas Jefferson middle schools in Jefferson City switched to distance learning Oct. 6 because of a significant staffing shortage from teachers in quarantine and a lack of substitutes. The earliest day they will return to in-seat instruction is Oct. 26.

"At this time, we do not anticipate any immediate closures in additional buildings due to staffing, but we are keeping our eyes on the staffing numbers for all of our buildings, which can vary significantly from day to day or week to week," Communications Director Ryan Burns said.

Shelby Scarbrough, JC Schools chief of learning and human resources director, said many retirees aren't comfortable substituting, so the Human Resources Department plans to reach out to retirees to show them the district's re-entry plan and ask if they would feel comfortable substituting in buildings that have not had any COVID-19 cases.

Catholic parochial schools in Jefferson City have not used the option to allow quarantined teachers to return to work, but they may give teachers that option if there becomes a need for it, Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City Superintendent Erin Vader said.

"We are certainly hopeful that we're going to be able to make it through without asking any teacher to do anything like that, but it's nice to have that option in case we need it," Vader said.

Administrators in the Cole County R-5 School District in Eugene did not respond to requests for information for this article.

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