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New state health measure would allow teachers exposed to positive COVID-19 case to keep working
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New state health measure would allow teachers exposed to positive COVID-19 case to keep working

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A new state directed health measure that went into effect Tuesday allows teachers and other school personnel to continue working if they’ve been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 as long as they don't develop symptoms.

The change — which neither state education or union officials thought would take effect until later in the month — says teachers, para-educators and other non-certificated staff may continue to teach rather than self-quarantine if they wear face coverings for 14 days, practice social distancing, self-monitor twice daily for fever and other symptoms for 14 days and don’t develop symptoms.

The measure doesn’t define teachers and other school personnel as essential workers, but the language is similar to advisory guidance last month from the Department of Homeland Security that declared teachers as “critical infrastructure workers.”

Nebraska Department of Education spokesman David Jespersen said the measure is designed to give schools and local health departments more flexibility in deciding who should be quarantined. It would not prohibit teachers who wanted to quarantine from doing so, he said.

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There’s been anecdotal evidence, he said, that some schools are having to quarantine a large number of teachers who never get sick.

“We’re talking about people right on that fringe,” he said, people whose contact was only for a short time and who are not exhibiting any symptoms.

But teacher groups are not happy.

Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said the measure was issued in a vacuum, which has created chaos and puts educators at risk. NSEA officials had been talking to state officials and offered guidance, then found out it had already been published.

“What it says to teachers is teach until you drop,” she said. “This is a major change to quarantine protocol. This is going to put children, teachers and families at risk.”

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State education officials are still working on guidance for schools, and NSEA plans to produce its own guidance for teachers.

Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel said the district does not plan to make any changes to its quarantine and self-isolating protocols because they appear to be working.

“Through the contact-tracing process, we have not seen any spread of COVID-19 within our school buildings, and we believe that is due to our safety practices and everyone doing a great job of following those protocols,” he said.

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If LPS officials need to rethink it down the road, he said, they will.

Part of the motivation for the change, Joel said, is that districts around the country are struggling to find substitutes to fill in for teachers who must quarantine, a problem complicated by the fact that many substitutes are retired teachers whose age puts them at higher risk.

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Rita Bennett, president of the Lincoln Education Association, said some substitutes are also leery of having to teach both remote and in-person learners at the same time, even though they’ve had some training.

Bennett said getting substitutes has been an issue, with teachers having to cover for those gone, a situation that makes finding planning time to better manage both in-person and remote learners even more difficult.

Joel said LPS is doing what it can to address the substitute situation. That includes a new incentive for substitutes: those who substitute at least 15 days during the month will get a $150 bonus. Long-term subs already get additional compensation because of the extra work involved, according to an email sent to substitutes Thursday.

The new state directed health measure says teachers and other school personnel may continue working if they’ve had close contact with a person who tested positive, has a test pending and is symptomatic or has had close contact with someone with a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, a sudden onset of a cough, shortness of breath or loss of taste and smell.

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The measure says school should also perform and document temperatures of those personnel daily for local health departments.

Fennell said many districts do not require masks and that social distancing is nearly impossible in larger districts.

LPS requires both students and staff to wear masks, sanitize surfaces and hands often, self-monitor for symptoms daily and social distance when possible.

The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department defines high-risk close contacts as being within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes and not wearing masks.

The state’s directed health measure defines close contact as being within 6 feet of someone for at least 10 minutes.

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Photos: First day of school 2020

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist

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Local government reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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