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This article free to all readers because it includes information important to public safety and health in our community.

Following the example of the Cole County Health Department, the Callaway County Health Department will allow school districts to determine whether school staff are considered essential workers.

Cole County announced last month it is recognizing teachers as "critical infrastructure," allowing school districts to determine whether to require school staff to follow full quarantine procedure during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"If they (school systems) notify the health department of this standing we will honor their decision," Callaway County Health Department Executive Director Sharon Lynch wrote in an email.

This means if the school district chooses, school staff could be treated similarly to hospital and law enforcement personnel: If a teacher is in close contact with a positive COVID-19 case, but is asymptomatic, the teacher could return to work earlier than someone in a different profession.

The general public is asked to remain in quarantine for 14 days after coming in close contact with a positive case.

Despite this move, it is unclear whether any potentially exposed teachers will actually end up in the classroom in Callaway County — it is up to the school districts to decide whether to treat staff as essential workers.

One fear school officials across the nation have expressed relates to not having enough teachers to keep students in the classroom for in-person learning.

"Although there have been discussions on this topic, we haven't been in the position to have to make that decision yet," Karen Snethen, Fulton Public Schools director of community relations, said in an email.

According to the Fulton Return to Learn plan published in August, individuals who have had direct, inside, extended contact with a positive case must remain home for 14 days. This policy applies to staff and students.

As of Wednesday, there was only one active positive case among Fulton Public Schools staff and students. But 72 individuals are currently quarantined due to exposure.

As of Tuesday, North Callaway was reporting no active cases.

"At this time, North Callaway R-1 School District is abiding by the CDC's recommendation that individuals identified as close contacts will be quarantined for the 14 days from the last contact date," North Callaway Superintendent Nicky Kemp said in an email.

New Bloomfield R-3 Superintendent Sarah Wisdom said her school district is allowing teachers to have input on the issue of quarantine.

"They know how they feel and their comfort level," Wisdom wrote in an email.

The New Bloomfield school district reported having six active cases last week. New Bloomfield has 738 enrolled students and 103 staff members.

"Our Health Department has said that if the teacher is a close contact, they can still teach if they do not have symptoms and feel comfortable doing," Wisdom wrote in an email. "Our teachers have been superstars in this process! If they show any symptoms or if they are getting tested, we require them to stay home until they feel better or get a negative test."

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South Callaway R-2 School District doesn't currently have any positive cases.

"As long as we can keep our numbers, we are not having them come back to campus as an essential worker," South Callaway Superintendent Kevin Hillman said.

Should a South Callaway staff member come in close contact with a positive case, the district will still have them stay home for quarantine, he said.

"For right now, it has worked for us to quarantine," Hillman said. "We will continue to do that as long as we can."

While the district's preference is to continue being as cautious as possible when it comes to quarantine, Hillman said the situation could change as the district works to keep students in the classroom.

"Just like we said at the beginning of the year, everything is subject to change," Hillman said. "Everyone is trying to do what's best for their district."

What is quarantine?

Quarantine is necessary because people with COVID-19 are often contagious before they start showing symptoms. Similarly, some who have tested positive never show symptoms but are still able to spread the virus.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, people who have been within 6 feet of someone who tested positive for a total of 15 minutes or more should stay home and away from others for 14 days.

Quarantine is set at 14 days because symptoms can appear between two and 14 days after exposure.

For those who live with someone who tested positive and cannot avoid contact, quarantine should start after that person has finished their period of isolation. Isolation, reserved for those with symptoms who have tested positive, only ends if 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared and the individual has been fever-free without the use of fever-reducing medications for 24 hours.

On Aug. 18, the Department of Homeland Security listed teachers as workers essential to continue critical infrastructure operations in an advisory.

Though not a binding directive, the advisory has been used as justification for school districts across the country who have chosen to allow teachers with no symptoms to return to classrooms without a 14-day quarantine.

The Missouri State Teachers Association called keeping teachers in the classroom after COVID-19 exposure "irresponsible."

"It is irresponsible to expect teachers to remain in a classroom after being exposed to COVID-19 and potentially risk infecting colleagues, parents family members and students," MSTA senior staff attorney Kyle Farmer said in an Aug. 21 news release.

In an email, Lynch shared several CDC recommendations for essential employees, including temperature checks each morning, masks, social distancing, frequent disinfections and regular monitoring for symptoms.

Employees should stay home if they are symptomatic and seek testing immediately, Lynch wrote.

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