As ‘essential workers,’ local teachers not required to quarantine after COVID-19 exposure

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Tallahassee Democrat | by CD Davidson-Hiers | August 26, 2020

Teachers are now considered “essential workers” and will not be required to quarantine for 14 days after an exposure to COVID-19. 

But while Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna welcomed the recent federal guidelines change during Tuesday night’s School Board meeting, board members balked at the rapid turnabout to previous procedure and said that teachers cannot simply return to work after a viral exposure. 

The ensuing debate raised questions of what the district’s policy will be regarding employees quarantining after an exposure to the novel coronavirus, whether any substantial policy changes should occur on the eve of schools reopening, and how the district communicates changes throughout county schools. 

Last week, the federal government re-categorized teachers via the Department of Homeland Security and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and said they are now “critical infrastructure workers,” Assistant Superintendent Alan Cox told the board. Cox is one of five assistant superintendents at the school district and oversees health and wellness. 

Members of the Leon County School Board met for the first time all in person at the Aquilina Howell Building for Tuesday night's board meeting, Aug. 25, 2020.
Members of the Leon County School Board met for the first time all in person at the Aquilina Howell Building for Tuesday night Board’s meeting, August 25. Screenshot of a video meeting.

He said the change meant that any employee, no matter their level of exposure to the virus, could return to work the next day wearing a face mask — and not removing it — while maintaining appropriate social distances from others. The exposed employee would need to be asymptomatic.

In previous local procedure, employees would have been required to quarantine for 14 days if they were within 6 feet of someone who tested positive for the virus for about 15 minutes, whether they were wearing a face mask or not. 

Hanna, who has previously and repeatedly said the 14-day quarantining period for anyone considered “exposed” to the virus would hamstring reopening efforts, called the federal guidance a “game-changer.” 

Despite the superintendent’s enthusiasm, Leon County School Board members, starting with Alva Striplin, said the district needed to have some quarantine process in place to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

“I personally feel we should not be asking our workers to go back if they know they’ve been exposed to someone who’s positive (for COVID-19),” Striplin said.

Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna speaks at a press conference held at Riley Elementary School on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.
Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna speaks at a press conference held at Riley Elementary School on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat.

Board member Rosanne Wood echoed Striplin’s comment and said the change was too big for board members to digest and decide on in one meeting. 

Board member Darryl Jones said he worried about the “integrity of the information coming from the federal government” about the virus.

Jones added he would feel more confident if the district continued with its current 14-day quarantine procedure and reminded the board the highly-contagious virus can be deadly. 

Three Fort Braden School community members have died this summer because of COVID-19.

At least two principals, Fort Braden’s Jimbo Jackso — who also is a Leon County commissioner — and Hawks Rise Elementary School’s Principal Beth Jackson, both previously have tested positive for the virus. Chiles High School Athletic Director Mike Eto also continues to battle the virus at home. 

Three Fort Braden School community members have died this summer because of COVID-19.

At least two principals, Fort Braden’s Jimbo Jackso — who also is a Leon County commissioner — and Hawks Rise Elementary School’s Principal Beth Jackson, both previously have tested positive for the virus. Chiles High School Athletic Director Mike Eto also continues to battle the virus at home.

All told, assistant Superintendent Cox told the board that since Aug. 1, the district has seen:

  • 81 COVID-19 exposures among employees
  • 15 employees positive for the virus
  • 65 employees have been cleared to return to work 
  • 16 employees are currently still quarantined

Superintendent Hanna added that the district’s “entire plumbing department is on quarantine.”

He did not elaborate to board members on how many people are employed in the district’s plumbing department. 

The Tuesday night board conversation resolved — though board members did not make any outright decisions — with members asking if the district would compromise with federal guidance and consider some procedure such as requiring at least a three-day quarantine with a negative rapid COVID-19 test for an employee to return to work. 

School Board Member Rosanne Wood speaks during the Leon County School Board reorganization meeting at the Howell Center Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018.
School Board Member Rosanne Woods speaks during the Leon County School Board reorganization meeting at the Howell Center Tuesday, November 20, 2018. Tori Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat.

Wood even asked for a special board meeting to discuss the new policy, though schools reopen Monday.

She amended her request by saying she wanted more medical experts and officials to weigh in on the policy before any changes were made “because we’re just making it up on the spot.”

The superintendent agreed he would consult with local healthcare professionals to see if a local compromise with federal guidance would medically benefit the district. 

The next School Board meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8. 

Crossed lines of communication

Board members, including Wood and Striplin, briefly engaged in a heated moment with Superintendent Hanna about when the information about the federal change reached teachers and schools versus when board members knew about it. 

“We just want to be included,” Striplin told the superintendent.

Leon County School Board Member Alva Striplin listens to County Commissioner Rick Minor give a presentation on the Tallahassee Second Harvest Food Bank, Monday, Jan. 7, 2019.
Leon County School Board Member Alva Striplin listens to County Commissioner Rick Minor give a presentation on the Tallahassee second harvest food bank Monday, January 7, 2019. Alicia Devine/Democrat.

Scott Mazur, president of the local teachers union Leon Classroom Teachers Association, told the board during a three-minute public address that the district’s lines of communications had broken down between administrators, teachers and parents.  

Mazur said teachers already knew about the potential policy change last week before board members knew Tuesday.

He reiterated how, this summer, he had been asking the district to be mindful of how information was disseminated as the reopening date approaches. Mazur was one of 21 members to sit on the district’s reopening task force. 

He also reminded the board that many teachers are frightened about returning to classrooms on Monday. The local teacher’s union holds roughly 50% of local teachers. 

Union Vice President Kim Stralow, who also publicly addressed the board, told officials that parents would not realize what the federal change meant for local classrooms. 

“Parents don’t know we’ll be standing there in front of their children during a mask break asymptomatic (for COVID-19),” Stralow told the board. “We (teachers) feel we are being sacrificed… to be babysitters, child care, whatever.”