The St. Joseph School District will transition starting next week to a policy framework that defines educators as “essential workers” and will reduce their time in quarantine in certain cases of COVID-19 exposure.

At present, a staffer who is found to have been a “close contact” of a child or other person who tested positive with COVID-19 must leave work for at least 14 days. The new protocol will result in this time being reduced to seven days followed by seven days on duty under close supervision. The policy has the stated goal of correcting the high rate at which home confinement periods have left classrooms and other duty stations understaffed.

Board member Dr. Bryan Green said the decision was difficult but that he felt it necessary to sustain the district’s education mission.

“This is not a simple, easy solution,” he told his colleagues. “There are competing values, obviously. I spent a lot of time thinking about it — not just recently, but over several weeks as we’ve been dealing with this pandemic — and I’ve looked at it from lots of perspectives.”

Under the policy, the eighth day after the “close contact” is detected prompts staff to return to work if they have no COVID-19 symptoms and have not tested positive. For at least another week, the employee will be prompted to travel only between their workplace and home. They will be expected to wear a face covering at all times. They will remain under quarantine during this time; any sign of sickness will prompt immediate return to home isolation. Certain teacher duties in which it is difficult to avoid close contact with kids will be suspended. The policy allows for case-by-case flexibility in application.

The Board of Education unanimously approved the new policy which is meant to go into effect on Monday, Nov. 2.

Board member Lori Witham said she has also spent quite some time thinking about it.

“I think not even my husband knows how much sleep I’ve lost over this decision,” she said. “I urge those who are opposed to not view us as taking this decision lightly, because I most certainly have not.”

The board heard from three community members who spoke against the proposal and none in favor. The three speakers were Dick Schott, J. Eric Simmons and Jeff Leake.

“I feel that the board is trying to solve the wrong problem,” Schott said. “Which is stated as keeping teachers in the classroom by decreasing the time they spend in isolation. That is not the problem. The problem is getting adequate coverage for classes that need to stay in session and stay within CDC guidelines ...

“Yes, COVID-19 is a big issue, but the board should tell the administration to come up with multiple options to deal with having enough substitutes.”

Leake said he’s not confident the policy will address staffing shortages.

“We don’t have a money problem at the root of our problems, we don’t have a building problem at the root of our problems, we have a personnel problem, with morale in the district,” he said. “This will not help.”

Marcus Clem can be reached at marcus.clem@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowClem