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New quarantine rules for teachers could keep Nebraska schools open
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New quarantine rules for teachers could keep Nebraska schools open

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A new Nebraska directed health measure could keep teachers on the job — and schools open — after staff members have a close contact with COVID-19.

The new language could be a “game changer” for schools as they attempt to keep their doors open during the pandemic, said Gretna Superintendent Rich Beran.

But the state’s teachers union says the change to quarantining protocols, which took effect this week, could put teachers at risk.

The change allows a teacher to stay in the classroom after a close COVID-19 contact instead of quarantining, as long as the teacher takes certain precautions.

A close contact means coming within 6 feet — for at least 10 minutes — of a person who tested positive for COVID-19, had a fever of 100.4 degrees or above, or had sudden onset of a cough or sudden onset of shortness of breath, according to the document.

Under the measure, the teacher could remain on the job as long as they have no symptoms, wear a face covering or mask for 14 days, practice social distancing and self-monitor twice daily for fever and other symptoms. The new protocol took effect Tuesday.

The guidelines also apply to paraprofessionals and other staffers at schools and educational service units.

The prospect of running out of teachers and substitutes remains a concern for school officials.

As of last week, for example, the Millard Public Schools reported 216 students and staff members quarantining.

Millard Superintendent Jim Sutfin said he’s reviewing the implications of the measure for his district.

“Specifically, we are working to identify situations and circumstances where this new directive may be of benefit to our staff, students and community while also keeping safety as our primary goal,” he said.

Nebraska State Education Association executive director Maddie Fennell said union officials are reviewing the document and intend to come up with guidance to protect the safety of their members and students.

Teachers are already overwhelmed teaching during the pandemic, she said.

“Now they’re basically being told to teach until you become severely ill or you drop,” she said. “We’re basically being called essential workers without saying that. But essential workers need to have the appropriate PPE and everything in place.”

Not every district has the personal protective equipment on hand, and social distancing practices vary from school to school, she said. She said many teachers have been buying their own protective equipment.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said the intent is to provide more flexibility to local health departments when deciding to quarantine teachers.

“We have a lot of people get quarantined and never come down with anything,” Blomstedt said.

He said the change should not force a person to teach if they feel they’ve been exposed to the disease.

“If someone thinks they’ve really been exposed, and they want to quarantine, it still gives them the flexibility to be able to do that,” Blomstedt said. “But I think we have folks who go, ‘Hey, look, I don’t think I was really exposed. I’m showing no symptoms. Can I monitor and come back?’ I would hope it would empower the individual as well.”

Mass quarantines are a concern because they could cause a school to shut down, despite having no significant spread, he said.

Blomstedt said he agrees with union leaders that teachers who teach in person should have protective equipment, such as better quality masks, to ensure their safety.

He said he doesn’t know how many of the people who are quarantined for contact eventually get the disease.

“I only have anecdotally, where we’ve been told quite a few times that people are being quarantined out of an abundance of caution, and then not coming down with anything, and returning after the quarantine time, which creates a kind of mistrust in the quarantine process, too,” he said.

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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