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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / From left, Special Education teacher Erin Knight and Girl's Physical Education teacher Deanna Wilson await the arrival of bus at the north entrance of Red Bank Middle School. Students arrived in significantly reduced numbers at Red Bank Middle School before 7:00 a.m. on Aug. 12, 2020.

Hamilton County Schools will continue to follow public health recommendations despite new guidance from the state, which says school districts can deem teachers essential workers in order to avoid quarantine after a COVID-19 exposure as long as they adhere to other safety measures.

People who come in close contact with someone with coronavirus are supposed to quarantine at home away from others and monitor their health for 14 days after their last contact with the COVID-19 case, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

The Hamilton County Health Department issued a news release on Tuesday warning residents that the 14-day quarantine period restarts anytime they come into contact with someone who has the coronavirus. Therefore, if people live with someone who is COVID-19 positive and they are unable to maintain social distance, or if other household members fall ill, the quarantine period could wind up lasting 24 days or more. These guidelines are based on the belief that people with COVID-19 are infectious for about 10 days, and it can take between two and 14 days for symptoms of a new infection to emerge.

"It is imperative to follow this guidance closely as the virus can be incubating during this timeframe. Leaving quarantine too soon can result in the spread of COVID-19," according to the health department's news release.

Tim Hensley, Hamilton County Department of Education spokesman, said in an email that "staff should be able to accommodate a 24-day quarantine" if the need arises.

"We are focused on following CDC guidelines and sharing the HCS SAFE Pledge to keep staff and students safe and healthy," he wrote, adding that "we work with the Health Department and follow their lead."

However, other school districts in the state are struggling to make the same accommodations and are instead opting to create their own rules for what to do when teachers or staff are exposed to COVID-19.

Tennessee issued new guidance Tuesday for school districts that deem staff "critical infrastructure" so that educators can return to work if they have been exposed to the coronavirus or live with someone who's COVID-19 positive. In order to do so, staff must be designated essential, have no symptoms, wear face masks, maintain proper social distance and practice other safety measures, including continuing to quarantine when not at work.

"I want to ... confirm that patients who have tested positive, they're not part of critical infrastructure. They are in isolation," Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said during a news conference Tuesday. "Isolation is what you do when you've had a case. There are no exceptions to that. The quarantine is the exception for critical infrastructure — for those who have been exposed but are symptom-free and their district has designated that they come back to work."

READ MORE: Gordon Central High School in Georgia closed due to staffing shortage, COVID-19 exposure

During the same news conference, Gov. Bill Lee said that the decision to adopt a critical infrastructure policy for educators was up to individual school districts.

"Our departments of health and education are providing a set of minimum required precautions that are necessary for any school district implementing this critical infrastructure approach for their employees," Lee said.

The Bradley County School Board voted last week to let its director of schools take advantage of the critical infrastructure designation for staff.

Scott Bennett, attorney for the Bradley County Board of Education, said during the school board meeting on Aug. 15 that being able to deem educators essential is a "huge step, which is probably going to be the difference between whether systems can stay open or not."

"There are some districts that have lots of wiggle room, because they're fully virtual right now. The districts that are open, especially five days a week, are tight," according to an online video of Bennett speaking at the meeting.

Bradley County Schools resumed in-person learning five days a week on Monday.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

 

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