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Oak Ridge Schools told staff to use timers to circumvent CDC virus exposure thresholds, emails show

The emails told teachers to use 8 - 9 minute timers while in close contact with others. At the time, the CDC defined exposure as 10 minutes or more.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — Principals at Oak Ridge Schools told staff to use 8-9 minute timers to monitor their close interactions with students and each other to avoid reaching the CDC's 10 minute COVID-19 exposure threshold, emails obtained by 10News show. 

"Limit the time to under ten minutes, even if you have to set a timer for eight minutes," said one Aug. 4 email from Oak Ridge High School principal Martin Mcdonald. "These precautionary steps could be the difference between a 14-day quarantine or not." 

Principals at Linden, Glenwood and Willow Brook elementary schools sent similar letters to their staff with best practices for operations during the coronavirus pandemic, according to emails obtained through a public records request.

"When needing to have closer contact with students (providing support, small groups, read alouds, etc.), set a timer to ensure you are keeping your close contact to UNDER 10 min. [sic] and student to student contact UNDER 10 min. as well," the emails sent in early August read. 

"It seems well-intentioned," Vanderbilt infectious disease professor Dr. William Schaffner said of the recommendations. "The principal would obviously like to reduce the transmission, but it’s a little like gaming the system or not really understanding its intent."

Oak Ridge Schools representatives did not return multiple calls, emails and in-person requests for comment Thursday. The district is currently on fall break. 

When 10News began working on this story in August, a spokesperson said the district advised people to keep at least 6 feet apart and wear masks. 

RELATED: Tracking COVID-19 in East Tennessee schools

In one email, the principal at Woodland Elementary asked the district's school nurse coordinator, "Would setting a timer and coming back a couple of minutes later for nine minutes or so keep us within the procedure?" 

Within minutes, the top nurse replied and said it would. 

"Of course the virus does not count five minutes, ten minutes, 14 minutes, 15 minutes," Schaffner said. "We're talking about likelihoods of transmission here. It's not as though if it's 14-and-a-half minutes you cannot get infected." 

Since the emails were sent around the start of school in August, the CDC expanded its exposure threshold to within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more. 

"It’s a graduated thing," Schaffner said. "The 15 minutes is more of a guideline than an absolute."

Oak Ridge Schools reported 17 total cases of COVID-19 Thursday, more than half of the cases were from staff or students of the schools where principals recommended using timers to monitor exposure.