Teachers could stay in classroom if exposed to COVID-19

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FILE - In this July 1, 2020, file photo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee removes his mask as he begins a news conference in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee was one of the first states to begin reopening in late April after Lee reluctantly issued a safer-at-home order that forced businesses to close. Since then, case numbers have continued to rise in part due to more testing, but also because of an increase in community spread of the disease. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

ATLANTA – New guidance from President Donald Trump's administration that declares teachers to be “critical infrastructure workers” could give the green light to exempting teachers from quarantine requirements after being exposed to COVID-19 and instead send them back into the classroom.

Keeping teachers without symptoms in the classroom, as a handful of school districts in Tennessee and Georgia have already said they may do, raises the risk that they will spread the respiratory illness to students and fellow employees. Multiple teachers can be required by public health agencies to quarantine for 14 days during an outbreak, which can stretch a district's ability to keep providing in-person instruction.

South Carolina health officials also describe teachers as critical infrastructure workers, although it's unclear if any district there is asking teachers to return before 14 days.

Among the first districts to name teachers as critical infrastructure workers was eastern Tennessee’s Greene County, where the school board gave the designation to teachers July 13.

“It essentially means if we are exposed and we know we might potentially be positive, we still have to come to school and we might at that point be carriers and spreaders,” said Hillary Buckner, who teaches Spanish at Chuckey-Doak High School in Afton.

Buckner, secretary of the county-level affiliate of the National Education Association, said it’s unethical for teachers to risk infecting students. Only prekindergarten and kindergarten students are currently attending class face-to-face in 7,500-student Greene County, going two days a week for two-and-a-half hours a day. Teachers are instructing others online from their classrooms, Buckner said, but she said the local school board could soon mandate a broader in-person return.

Data kept by The Associated Press shows the coronavirus is spreading faster per-capita in Georgia than any other state, while Tennessee has the seventh-fastest spread. A few schools that reopened for in-person instruction in both states have already closed after cases were reported. Gordon Central High School in the northwest Georgia town of Calhoun switched to online instruction Wednesday citing a high number of teachers in quarantine.

At least five other school districts in Tennessee have given the designation to their teachers, seeking to exempt them from quarantine orders. Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday blessed the move, with his administration saying it would accept the designation, citing the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency.