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Trump Administration Guidance Says School Staff Are ‘Critical’ Workers

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 21, 2020 3 min read
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The Trump administration has released nonbinding guidance that teachers and other school staff are “critical infrastructure workers” as it pushes for schools to resume in-person classes this school year.

In a document issued Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, teachers and others in the K-12 education field are identified as part of a long list of “essential” workers “who conduct a range of operations and services that are typically essential to continued critical infrastructure viability” and who “support crucial supply chains and enable functions for critical infrastructure.”

The agency’s section about education includes a wide range of school staff, from teachers, paraeducators, and mental health professionals, to cafeteria workers, crossing guards, librarians, and superintendents.

In a cover letter preceding the guidance, CISA Director Christopher C. Krebs stressed that the guidance is advisory and should not be taken as a federal “directive” or “standard.” Krebs went on to say that state, local, territorial, and tribal governments “are responsible for implementing and executing response activities in their communities, while the Federal Government is in a supporting role.”

Whether to officially declare that teachers are essential workers is a complex and politically fraught decision. A few states and some school districts have done so, and there’s been backlash from teachers. Read more about this issue in our colleague Maddy Will’s story.

And in a related issue, school districts must figure out which teachers qualify for medical exemptions from having to return to classrooms.

Here’s the list of workers in the education field included in the CISA guidance:

• Workers who support the education of preschool, K-12, college, university, career and technical education, and adult education students, including professors, teachers, teacher aides, special education and special needs teachers, ESOL teachers, paraeducators, apprenticeship supervisors, and specialists.
• Workers who provide services necessary to support educators and students, including but not limited to, administrators, administrative staff, IT specialists, media specialists, librarians, guidance counselors, school psychologists and other mental health professions, school nurses and other health professionals, and school safety personnel.
• Workers who support the transportation and operational needs of schools, including bus drivers, crossing guards, cafeteria workers, cleaning and maintenance workers, bus depot and maintenance workers, and those that deliver food and supplies to school facilities.
• Workers who support the administration of school systems, including school superintendents and their management and operational staff.
• Educators and operational staff facilitating and supporting distance learning.

The CISA guidance states the list of critical infrastructure workers in education, health care, public safety, and other employment sectors “is intended to be overly inclusive reflecting the diversity of industries.” It says school staff were not included in previous guidance about critical workers because schools were “presumed to be closed at the time of publication.”

The guidance also stresses that “the ability of essential workers to work safely” is crucial, and says identifying workers who could potentially work from home is one strategy to consider.

In response to the guidance, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García “is trying to extort educators into recklessly reopening that risks lives” and should instead work to provide badly needed coronavirus relief.

Pressure for Schools to Reopen Buildings

The Trump administration has made it clear that reopening face-to-face classes in a new school year should be a top national priority, as concerns persist about the economy’s ability to recover if many parents must stay home with children who are learning remotely.

Over the last several weeks, President Donald Trump and other administration officials have campaigned repeatedly for schools to resume in-person classes. Trump has criticized remote learning and threatened to pull money from schools that only hold remote learning, even though he lacks any clear power to do so.

However, he’s also acknowledged that schools in coronavirus “hot spots” may need to delay reopening their buildings. And he’s said that older and other vulnerable educators should not be forced to come into buildings.

Although Congress and the White House agree on the idea that schools need additional federal funding to help them address the pandemic, negotiations over a new virus relief package that includes K-12 aid have ground to a halt.

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