The Trump administration is now labeling teachers “essential” workers, a move aimed at pushing school districts to open for in-person instruction for the fall semester amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The declaration of teachers as “critical infrastructure workers,” which came in an Aug. 18 guidance published by the Department of Homeland Security, means that teachers exposed to coronavirus but who show no symptoms can return to classrooms and not quarantine for 14 days as public health agencies recommend.
DHS said the label is only advisory and not meant to be a federal directive. Still, school districts that want teachers to return to classrooms — even when teachers don’t think it is safe enough — could use the federal designation to bolster their own mandates.
Essential workers are those deemed by the DHS to work areas typically essential to continue critical infrastructure operations and who are expected to show up for their jobs on site because there is no other way to do them.
Schools closed last spring when the pandemic began in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease, and teachers have done their jobs remotely.
School districts had hoped to begin the 2020-21 school year with campuses reopened, but some have decided the risk of spreading the disease is too high and have returned to remote learning. Others are allowing students who want to return to school to do so.
In July, President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos began a push to force schools to reopen and threatened to withhold federal funding to those that refused. (They don’t have unilateral power to withhold money that Congress has already approved.)
School district leaders have spent the summer preparing safety protocols aimed at preventing the virus’ spread when buildings reopen, but many teachers say not enough has been done to allow for safe re-entry.
The teachers union in New York City threatened to strike if members are forced back into classrooms in September, and the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest national teachers union, said it would support strikes called in areas where teachers feel they are being forced into unsafe classrooms.
Yet some districts have or are considering declaring teachers as essential workers with the intent of sending them into classrooms if they have no symptoms after being exposed to the virus. On Tuesday, Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee said he supported new state guidance that tells school districts they can declare teachers as critical infrastructure workers and require them to return to work even if exposed.
The Tennessean reported that a handful of districts in the state have already labeled educators as essential workers, including the Bradley County Board of Education near Chattanooga, which approved a policy that will allow the superintendent to designate teachers or other employees as essential.
Greene County in Tennessee was one of the first school districts to do so, The Associated Press reported, quoting Hillary Buckner, who teaches Spanish at Chuckey-Doak High School in Afton: “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.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), sectors deemed “essential” by federal or state guidelines before the pandemic included energy; child care; water and wastewater; agriculture and food production; critical retail, such as grocery stores, hardware stores and mechanics; critical trades, such as construction workers, electricians and plumbers; transportation; and some social service organizations. While at least 28 states labeled child-care providers as essential workers, teachers were not, per the NCSL.
A recent report on essential workers by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, Washington-based think tank, said many essential workers are not being protected by basic health and safety measures, and some have died of COVID-19 as a result.