White House formally declaring teachers essential workers

The White House is formally declaring teachers essential workers as part of their efforts to encourage schools around the country to reopen for in-person learning. By Sarah Westwood

(CNN) -- The White House is formally declaring teachers essential workers as part of their efforts to encourage schools around the country to reopen for in-person learning. The move is just the latest in the administration's aggressive campaign to pressure districts into bringing back students this fall -- and although the essential worker designation provides guidance for educators that is only voluntary, it calls on teachers to return to the classroom even after potential exposure.

Vice President Mike Pence announced the decision to governors on a call earlier this week, a person familiar with the decision said. Under Department of Homeland Security guidance issued this week, teachers are now considered "critical infrastructure workers" and are subject to the same kinds of advisories as other workers who have borne that label -- such as doctors and law enforcement officers.

The guidance for essential workers states that they can continue to work even after exposure to a confirmed case of Covid-19, provided they remain asymptomatic. Schools' contribution to community spread has already been a top concern for districts making the decision to open or close, so pushing teachers to continue working after potential exposure could prove controversial.

Pence publicly confirmed Friday that the administration has designated teachers as essential workers, but said it was not a mandate.

"There's no mandate in that, Maria. What that is, is when you're declared an essential it means you're going to be prioritized for things like PPE and support. But 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 during an appearance on Fox Business.

"My wife's going to be back in the classroom teaching next week," he later added.

Karen Pence teaches art two days a week at Immanuel Christian School, a private school in Northern Virginia.

White House officials made the move in part to convey how seriously they believe the schools question should be taken, the person said, but also to try to stabilize the teaching workforce and streamline guidance at a time of confusion about the future of classrooms.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the critical worker designation could be used to "threaten, bully and coerce" teachers into classrooms without the proper considerations.

"If the President really saw us as essential, he'd act like it. Teachers are and always have been essential workers—but not essential enough, it seems, for the Trump administration to commit the resources necessary to keep them safe in the classroom. Rather than fund these protections, create a plan and guidance for how to ensure that school buildings can reopen safely, and follow the science," Weingarten said.

"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."

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