Tennessee greenlights teachers returning to class even if they've been exposed to COVID-19


Published by TENNESSEAN.COM

Summary generated on August 20, 2020


    Tennessee has issued guidance for school districts that deem teachers essential workers so that educators can be required to come to work even if they have been exposed to the coronavirus.

    This designation allows educators to still come to work if they've been exposed to the virus or are even living with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, as long as they don't have any symptoms and wear a mask.

    Gov. Bill Lee said during a news briefing Tuesday that he supports school districts that adopt such policies.

    "The decision is the district's and if they make that decision, then we have given them guidance that we believe they must follow, if they choose to make that decision," Lee said of the information released by the health and education departments.

    Once a school board or school district's governing body approves a policy to allow educators to be designated essential, the district must notify the Tennessee Department of Education.

    "Districts that opt to implement the approach for staff must implement additional measures to mitigate COVID-19 risk and notify TDH and the Tennessee Department of Education of such CI designation," Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and Public Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey wrote in a letter to school districts obtained by The Tennessean Tuesday.

    School districts implementing this approach must follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and require all individuals, including students in third grade and above, to wear face coverings or masks, enforce social distancing and prohibit school-sponsored mass gatherings.

    The guidance also states teachers or school district staff who are close contacts to an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19 must self-quarantine when not at school, in accordance with health department and CDC requirements.

    They should also not attend school athletic or extracurricular activities.

    They also must be tested for COVID-19 within four days of being in close contact to an individual who has tested positive.

    Once a teacher or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, then the district's isolation or quarantine policies should kick in.

    The guidance also encourages districts to "Examine their leave policies in consideration of employee isolation or quarantine necessitated by COVID-19.".

    Coronavirus in Tennessee: Impact felt throughout state.

    Many educators worry that they will be forced to go to school if they are exposed or will have to work until they get sick.

    J.C. Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee - a nonpartisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville - was wary of such policies before the state issued its guidance and argued against a statewide mandate.

    "Before adopting a policy that makes education employees 'essential workers,' policymakers should put themselves in the shoes of our educators, with empathy and understanding for what they do every day," Bowman in an email to The Tennessean.

    "This understanding only comes from 'living' and experiencing the real school environment and listening to our educators. We have not always done that during this pandemic."

    Bowman acknowledged educators are public servants, but he also asks if such a designation will come with additional sick leave if they do get sick, hazard pay or other benefits if teachers continue to work despite being exposed to the virus.

    When asked about additional protections for educators Tuesday, Lee emphasized the state's efforts to provide personal protective equipment to educators across the state.

    "That's the reason we have worked very hard to create a matrix that gives guidance specifically to counties and the needs of the community spread in that county. It has really strict protocols regarding what to do when there is a case," Lee said.

    "Those protocols provided with that personal protective equipment will help keep teachers safe."

    The governor said this response is needed "Given the disruptive effects of COVID-19, quarantine and isolation on teaching and providing essential services in schools."

    State officials argue the needs of Tennessee's nearly 140 school districts vary widely - some rural districts might already face extreme staffing shortages and if too many teachers or staff members are out of the classroom in most districts, it could mean schools would have to close.