A motion to designate school system employees critical infrastructure employees failed to pass the Cumberland County Board of Education with a 5-4 vote Thursday night.
“It says by doing this they anticipate it could present a greater opportunity for COVID-19 transmission. That is totally against what our goal has always been. We are here to try to limit this in every way we possibly can,” said Tony Brock, 5th District representative.
If approved, the measure would have allowed school personnel to return to work following exposure to the COVID-19 — provided they followed specific safety and testing protocols developed by the Tennessee Department of Health and Tennessee Department of Education.
Director of Schools Ina Maxwell said the state had originally said it would not recognize educational institutions under a critical infrastructure designation, though the Centers for Disease Control allowed for that move.
Currently, personnel who learn they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus must quarantine for 14 days from the date of their last known exposure.
On Aug. 14, the state said it would allow schools to adopt this designation, but it provided an addendum that required board approval for protocols.
“In our reopening plan, we identified our educational system as a critical infrastructure, and this addendum needs board approval,” Maxwell told the board.
Teresa Boston, 8th District representative, moved to approve the state’s requirements for the designation, supported by Becky Hamby, 7th District representative.
Brock objected, pointing to the letter from Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of health, and Penny Schwinn, commissioner of education, which said school systems who implemented the designation were not doing so “pursuant to any state-endorsed framework.”
“They’re not suggesting that we do this. They’re saying they will look the other way if we do declare our employees critical infrastructure,” Brock said.
One concern is the availability of substitutes to cover classes for teachers who must quarantine.
Boston said, “We send these teachers home for 10-14 days. We couldn’t find subs last year. The children that are in the building we have tasked ourselves to educate, we have no one to educate them.”
The critical infrastructure designation would allow employees exposed to a COVID-positive patient with close contact — defined as being within 6 feet of the person for 10 minutes or more — to return to work provided they have no symptoms and are tested for the virus by the fourth day after they were last in close contact and tested again three days later. Tests must be negative for the employee to continue working.
The designation would not allow someone who has tested positive for the virus to return to work. People who test positive are to remain in isolation for a minimum of 10 days. It would also not allow individuals who have a household member who is positive for the virus to continue working. Those individuals may need to quarantine for up to 24 days — 10 days for their household members isolation period and then 14 days from their last exposure.
“So be it,” Brock said. “I’d rather have a substitute in a classroom any day than have our children and other teachers and everybody in a school building exposed to this virus.”
He said an option could be to have an on-site substitute for classroom management and allow teachers to teach virtually from home provided they are well enough to do so.
Noncertified substitute teachers are paid $60 per day. Substitute teachers with a teaching certification are paid $70 per day, and retired teachers from the school system are paid $100 per day. Applications are available at the school system website, ccschools.k12tn.net under employment.
Stace Karge, 9th District representative, said the proposal didn’t provide an “out” for teachers.
“That’s a huge risk that they’re not given equal footing. If they’re exposed, they need to take care of themselves and their families, first and foremost,” she said. “We have to respect our faculty and staff. If they have got a possible exposure, they need to take care of themselves.”
Maxwell said staff have the option of whether or not to be tested if they are identified as a close contact for exposure. If the employee chooses not to be tested, they must quarantine for 14 days.
“We’re all in a no-win situation no matter what we do,” Maxwell said. “The only reason we considered this is it has to be a district that has a mask mandate.”
BOE Attorney Earl Patton said the county’s plan would have to be approved by the state health and education departments.
Kim Bray, human resources supervisor, said there were several employees who had already used their 80 hours of COVID-19 leave. Once that is used, employees required to quarantine would have to use accrued sick time or unpaid leave, she said.
“I have a lot of teachers who have called me with a negative test. They don’t understand why they can’t come back to work,” Bray said.
A report released Friday said 30 staff members have been quarantined since July 28 due to having had close contact with another individual who tested positive. Twelve staff members have reported positive cases.
As conversation continued, Karge called for the question, bringing the matter to a vote. The motion failed with a 4-5 vote.
Voting in favor of adopting the critical infrastructure employee guidelines were Boston; Hamby; Anita Hale, 4th District representative; and Tom Netherton, 6th District representative. Voting against were Brock; Karge; Jim Inman, 1st District representative; Rob Safdie, 2nd District representative; and Shirley Parris, 3rd District representative.