Teachers express safety concerns about ‘Critical Infrastructure’ guidelines ahead of school reopenings

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GREENE COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — As school administrators prepare reopening plans, some teachers have concerns about ‘Critical Infrastructure’ guidelines adopted by some school systems. These guidelines, issued by the CDC, address how possible COVID-19 exposure by employees should be handled.

Critical Infrastructure using CDC Infrastructure Guidelines identify different levels of COVID-19 exposure and designate which levels are still appropriate for a teacher to come to school.

Hillary Buckner, a teacher at Chuckey-Doak High School, was worried after the Greene County School Board approved the school system as Critical Infrastructure at their Monday night meeting. Buckner is also secretary for the Greene County Education Association.

“It’s in a way forcing us to work in unsafe conditions,” Buckner said.

Text from the CDC website and in the Greene County School Board agenda reads as follows:

The guidelines define ‘potential exposure’ as being a household contact or having close contact within 6 feet of an individual with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.

Guidelines state teachers will still come to school if they remain asymptomatic and additional safety precautions are put in place. These precautions include pre-screenings, mask-wearing, social distancing, and more. If an employee becomes sick during the day, the rules say they should be sent home immediately.

“The way we understand it is yes, if we were exposed to a positive case of COVID-19, then we would be expected to come in and work,” said Buckner. “The general concern for teachers here is how a policy like that is beneficial, not only to the students, but staff members. And overall, how it might be beneficial to a community, in terms of what that community would be able to handle if we were to have a larger outbreak within the school building.”

Jodie Carter, a teacher for Doak and Chuckey elementary schools, and member of the Greene County Education Association, is also worried about the Critical Infrastructure designation. Carter said her children attend another school district that could also adopt the designation.

“I’m concerned about my children being in school with staff, teachers, who have been exposed and are still working. Especially if they’re made to work,” Carter said. “I do realize that people can be pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. But for someone to actually know that they’ve been exposed and are still working concerns me.”

Dr. Bill Ripley, Greene County Schools’ Assistant Director of Academics and Human Resources, explained the decision to News Channel 11 on Thursday. Ripley said the school system was legally advised to adopt Critical Infrastructure guidance.

“Essentially, our school board wants to recognize officially that schools are just as important as other critical infrastructure organizations, such as fire, police, healthcare,” said Ripley.

News Channel 11 reached out to several other regional school districts on Thursday to ask if they had adopted Critical Infrastructure designations.

School districts for Johnson City, Washington County, Tennessee, Greeneville, Kingsport, Bristol, Tennessee, Carter County, Hawkins County and Elizabethton have not passed Critical Infrastructure rules.

On Thursday, representatives from Johnson City, Carter County, and Elizabethton schools told News Channel 11 that the respective school boards were all set to discuss this issue within the next week.

On Friday, a Johnson City Schools spokesperson told News Channel 11 that the item was removed from the school board agenda for Monday and wouldn’t be considered.

The Carter County School Board briefly discussed critical infrastructure at its Thursday meeting, but moved on in the agenda without taking a vote.

Hawkins County Superintendent Matt Hixson told News Channel 11 that the topic was under discusion.

Sullivan County Schools Director Dr. David Cox said the system had adopted Critical Infrastructure guidelines.

In expressing her concerns, Carter said she spoke for multiple teachers fearing for their safety in going back to school.

“I have heard from multiple teachers who are afraid to speak out about this. They are afraid of retribution, they’re afraid of losing their jobs. I’m not saying that’s a valid fear, but that is a real fear many people have,” she said.

For Greene County Schools, Dr. Ripley said the school district plans to listen to concerns teachers might have. He said certain accommodations can be made so teachers feel safe.

“But not coming to work is not a reasonable accommodation,” said Ripley. “So again, we’ll fall back on the guidance from the CDC as a critical infrastructure to help us determine the accommodations – that ‘yes, they should stay at home’ – and the accommodations that should be, ‘let’s talk about what we can do to make it safer.”

Dr. Ripley said in general, there is a generous leave policy for teachers.

“If you start recognizing leave because somebody knew somebody who tested positive, and I was around them, then you can see what a nightmare it’s going to be to try and staff and have school. Essentially, school will cease to occur if there’s too much of that,” he said.

Dr. Ripley said Greene County’s Critical Infrastructure plan makes an allowance beyond the CDC guidelines. If a teacher has someone within their household with COVID-19, they will not have to come to school.

“The CDC guidelines would tell you that if that teacher doesn’t have symptoms, they’re okay to come to work. We’re not going to do that,” he said.

Critical Infrastructure designation decisions come as Greene County and other school systems are in the midst of developing unprecedented reopening plans.

“We’re trying to ramp up, or expand, processes that we’ve had in place but not at this scale. It’s an enormous challenge. Communication is a big part of that,” said Ripley.

Buckner says she’s hoping for more communication from the school district on Critical Infrastructure, mask-wearing, and social distancing policies as the start of school grows closer.

“To say this is a life and death decision is not really putting it lightly, it really is,” she said. “This is probably one of the hardest decisions that any of these leaders have had to make.”

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