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In Some Missouri School Districts, Teachers Are Essential Workers — So They Don’t Have To Quarantine

A teacher performs a temperature check on the first day of school. Some schools that have opened for in-person learning are struggling to find substitutes when teachers have to quarantine due to close contact with someone who has COVID-19.
Dan Gaken / Flickr -- CC
A teacher performs a temperature check on the first day of school. Some schools that have opened for in-person learning are struggling to find substitutes when teachers have to quarantine due to close contact with someone who has COVID-19.

Essential workers don't have to quarantine as long as they don't have symptoms. Declaring teachers essential would keep them in classrooms even after having close contact with someone who has COVID-19.

Missouri education officials aren’t ready to declare teachers essential workers, but a few school districts are doing it anyway.

Essential employees can continue coming to work if they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus, as long as they don’t have any symptoms. It’s a classification that’s kept hospitals and health clinics staffed throughout the pandemic. Making school personnel essential could keep schools open for in-person learning during an unprecedented substitute teacher shortage.

“Obviously we all agree that educators are essential in the role that they play and what they do for our students,” Mallory McGowin, the communications director for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, told the state board on Tuesday. “We are not yet at a point at which we can support local pandemic-related decisions that stray from the state and national standards of care.”

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services currently advises anyone exposed to COVID-19 to self-quarantine, which means they “cannot go to work, school, or any public places where they could have close contact with others” for 14 days.

But McGowin acknowledged that some school districts and local health departments have relaxed those rules already to keep teachers in the classroom. One of those districts, Blair Oaks, is in the Jefferson City area.

Education commissioner Margie Vandeven said her department is in communication with the governor’s office and DHSS daily about how to solve the quarantine issue.

“Parents have a choice to keep their kids at home and have virtual education, but when the doors are closed, that presents a challenge for those who wish to send their students. It’s a very complex issue,” Vandeven said.

Gov. Mike Parson has said repeatedly he wants Missouri schools open. And across the state, 97% of school districts are offering in-person learning in some capacity, though some have students attending on alternate days to make social distancing possible. Most urban schools, including a majority of charter schools, are still doing distance learning, though some rural schools have had to close due to student and staff quarantines.

McGowin said while some teachers who’ve been in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 won’t want to quarantine if they feel fine, others are likely to bristle if deemed essential.

“They could potentially see that designation as something that would interfere with them being able to stay home if they feel that’s what’s safe to do,” McGowin said. “We have expressed that our staff members are going to see this as an added level of exposure and risk” if someone identified as a close contact continues to come to work.

McGowin added that this conversation isn’t just happening in Missouri: Other states have asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to review their school quarantine procedures and update them to better support in-person learning.

State Board President Charlie Shields, who is also the CEO of Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, said masking is the most effective way to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“In the health care world, it’s all about masking strategies,” Shields said. “We’re in N-95 (masks), full PPE, depending upon what the risk factor is. We assess it with every patient. I think in education, we need to do the same thing.”

It’s worth noting that not all Missouri school districts require students and staff to wear masks. But schools don’t have access to the same personal protective equipment as hospitals. Many districts don’t have N-95 masks for school nurses even.

Carol Hallquist, who represents the Kansas City area on the state board, said while there may be a strong preference for in-person learning, it needs to be safe.

“Sometimes we forget about the teachers and the staff members and the service people that keep a school running,” Hallquist said. “While the susceptibility for children is very, very low, we have to think about the adults in the building as well.”

Some evidence suggests that elementary schools can be reopened safely if students and staff wear masks, wash their hands and maintain six feet of separation whenever possible. Reopening middle and high schools is harder because teenagers can transmit the coronavirus, especially if they’re engaged in high-risk activities like contact sports.

Shields said not figuring out how to reopen schools isn’t an option. He pointed out that there are districts where educators haven’t made contact with 25% of their students, including Kansas City Public Schools.

“Virtual isn’t working for everybody, and I believe it’s disproportionately not working for children in poverty. That is very concerning for me,” Shields said. “I believe as a department and as a board, we should have a strong preference for in-person learning.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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