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The Cole County Health Department will recognize teachers as "critical infrastructure" to try to help schools maintain their schedules and allow learning to be as uninterrupted as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cole County Health Department Director Kristi Campbell said during a Thursday meeting of the Cole County Commission that this is modeled after earlier designations by the federal government for hospital and law enforcement personnel.
"If they are identified as a contact of a positive COVID case, they can go back to work as long as they follow strict guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control, wear a surgical mask, follow social distancing and have regular screening," Campbell said. "Just recently, the federal government designated teachers as essential or critical infrastructure, but Missouri has not. The state has put it back onto the local governments to decide."
If someone who is not considered "critical infrastructure" is identified as a contact of a positive COVID-19 case, they are required to quarantine for 14 days from the date of last exposure.
Campbell said county health officials met with several school districts this month about this and their recommendation was to classify teachers as critical infrastructure.
"That way, if the school districts want to allow them to work, if they have been identified as a contact, they can as long as they follow those strict guidelines," Campbell said. She noted the school districts will have the final say on whether they will allow this designation for their teachers.
Cole County will probably be the first in the state to do this, Campbell added.
"We feel the risk is very low," Campbell said. "We have a lot of contacts that never convert to positive COVID cases. The schools are doing all the things they need to do to minimize the risk. We feel that if doctors do this and continue to see patients, then teachers should be able to as well."
While no formal vote was required, the County Commission indicated to Campbell that they approved the action.
"If they do start having symptoms, then they can be quarantined," Cole County Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman said.
In addition to teachers, hospital and law enforcement personnel, workers considered critical infrastructure by the Cole County Health Department include:
-Those involved in food manufacturing;
-Those supporting the energy sector;
-Those needed to operate drinking water and wastewater operations;
-Transportation workers such as truck and bus drivers along with dispatchers and maintenance staff;
-Those involved in construction or maintenance of critical infrastructure;
-Workers who manage hazardous materials;
-Those who make personal protective equipment and medical supplies;
-Those who work at financial institutions;
-Those who support chemical and gas supply chains;
-Those who support services for national security;
-Workers who supply building materials;
-Social service workers; and
-Those who produce hygiene and cleaning products.
Currently, if teachers in the Jefferson City School District or Blair Oaks R-2 School District are identified as close contacts of a positive COVID-19 case, they are required to quarantine until released by the Cole County Health Department.
JC Schools leaders are in reviewing the updated guidance and will discuss it with other Cole County school leaders next time they meet, Communications Director Ryan Burns said Thursday.
"We have seen that our current re-entry procedures are working as intended," Burns said. "However, this change is something that could be a benefit in the future, particularly if staffing becomes an issue due to quarantine."
Blair Oaks Superintendent Jim Jones said if there becomes a need for it, he and building administrators will consider allowing teachers identified as close contacts to return to work.
"We need to look at every possible option to have — in a safe manner — our teachers that we've hired to lead our students," Jones said Thursday.
Before making that decision, administrators will gather input from students, teachers and parents, Jones said.
"We want them to be comfortable with the things we are doing to support student learning," Jones said.
Helias Catholic High School and the other parochial school leaders in Cole County are evaluating the new information and discussing whether to change their protocols, Helias Communications Director Sandy Hentges said Thursday.
Missouri National Education Association Communications Director Mark Jones said the association is focused on the health and safety of students and families and that teachers should not be able to return to work if they are a close contact to a person with COVID-19.
"What we know is that if a person was exposed to COVID-19, the prudent and safe thing to do is for them to quarantine for 14 days and get tested, and that's how we're going to beat this thing and actually get to a place where we can reopen our schools and communities and go back to normal," he said.
The Missouri State Teachers Association also believes teachers should quarantine for 14 days if identified as a close contact of a COVID-19 case because the CDC guidance on operating schools states those teachers should stay home, according to a news release from the association.
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"It is irresponsible to expect teachers to remain in a classroom after being exposed to COVID-19 and potentially risk infecting colleagues, parents, family members and students," Kyle Farmer, senior staff attorney for MSTA, said in the news release.
Todd Fuller, a spokesperson for MSTA, said the association believes all decisions should be based on science.
"We don't think the decision is being based on science if they're not allowing a teacher to quarantine or not sending the teacher or any educational personnel home to quarantine," Fuller said.
As a parent, Fuller said, he would be uncomfortable if his child was in a classroom with a teacher who had been identified as a close contact, especially because it is difficult to maintain social distance in a classroom.
"Regardless of defining somebody as an essential worker, there's still that level of safety and security that's important for the teacher, it's important for students in the classroom, and it's important for the community and for parents," Fuller said.