The Trump administration has designated teachers as “critical infrastructure workers,” a nonbinding classification that places them under specialized risk management strategies to help them work safely amid the pandemic.
Vice President Mike Pence confirmed the designation in an interview on Fox News on Aug. 21.
“When you’re declared an essential worker, it means you’re going to be prioritized for things like PPE and support,” Pence said, adding that while there’s no mandate associated with the classification, it’s part of the Trump administration’s effort to resume in-person instruction in schools.
“We want to get our kids back to school, but we also want our teachers to know that we’re going to make the resources available so that their schools can be a safe environment,” he said in an appearance on Fox Business. “My wife’s going to be back in the classroom teaching next week,” he added.
Under Department of Homeland Security guidance issued this week (pdf), teachers are now considered “critical infrastructure workers” and as such are subject to the same kinds of advisories as other so-called essential workers, including police officers and doctors.
Christopher C. Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said in a statement that the designation isn’t a federal directive or standard.
“The list can now be most useful in identifying the universe of essential workers that may require specialized risk management strategies to ensure that they can work safely. Furthermore, the list can be used to begin planning and preparing for the allocation of scarce resources used to protect essential workers against COVID-19,” he wrote.
President Donald Trump said in a statement on Aug. 12, “We believe many school districts can now reopen safely, provided they implement mitigation measures and health protocols to protect families, protect teachers, and to protect students.”
“We’ve got to open up our schools and open up our businesses,” Trump said, adding that children “often have only mild symptoms, and medical complications are incredibly rare—very, very, very rare. Those that do face complications often have underlying medical conditions.”
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that children are about 20 times less likely than adults to be hospitalized for COVID-19, but when they are, about one in three ends up in intensive care.
“Children are at risk for severe COVID-19. Public health authorities and clinicians should continue to track pediatric SARS-CoV-2 infections. Reinforcement of prevention efforts is essential in congregate settings that serve children, including childcare centers and schools,” the CDC noted.
One of the implications of the new classification of teachers as essential workers is that they can continue to work after a confirmed exposure to COVID-19 as long as they remain asymptomatic. Critics of the new designation for educators argue it could be used to pressure teachers to work in unsafe environments.
“The Trump administration will always try to change the rules to threaten, bully, and coerce. No doubt this new ‘guidance’ will be used as a pretext by Trump-supporting governors to force students and educators into unsafe buildings to serve the president’s political agenda,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told CNN.
Meanwhile, like Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has encouraged in-class instruction to resume. She has said that the outbreak dynamics in school districts should be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine whether distance learning is a better call.
“Secretary DeVos has said all along that when public health circumstances dictate, schools may need to move to distance learning—and no matter the delivery model, students deserve a full-time education,” Education Department spokesperson Angela Morabito told Politico.
DeVos has been a staunch advocate of giving parents greater power in choosing how their children are educated.
“Whether you want your child back in the classroom, in a learning pod, attending home school, or learning remotely, this Administration stands with you and has a policy solution for that: #SchoolChoiceNow. Families should decide where and how their children learn,” DeVos said in an Aug. 20 tweet, referring to the School Choice Now Act, a bill that includes a call to redirect some COVID-19 relief funds to school-choice programs.
Different schools around the country have opted for various approaches, such as reduced in-person attendance or online learning.
Also, states have separately issued their own “essential worker” designations.