School & District Management

If Coronavirus Closes School, Who Gets Paid and How?

By Mark Lieberman — March 11, 2020 | Corrected: March 11, 2020 7 min read
A server places breakfast out in the cafeteria at Kyrene De Las Lomas Elementary School in Phoenix. As more schools close over coronavirus concerns, districts are wrestling with how they will pay employees should people fall ill, be required to be in quarantine, or if there's a prolonged shutdown.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Parkrose School District in Oregon.

If schools are closed because of coronavirus, will everyone still get paid? Will school employees have to use their sick days if their buildings are shut down? If staff members require quarantine or catch the virus, will they be paid for the days they’re absent from work? What if they’ve already used most of their allotted sick days for the year?

As the novel coronavirus spreads into more American communities, these are some of the biggest questions that don’t yet have clear or uniform answers.

Advocates for closing schools argue that keeping people from gathering in large groups is one of the most effective methods for preventing further spread of the virus. But closing schools also could squeeze parents who serve vital functions in their communities, deprive students who depend on schools for meals, and disrupt in-person instruction that would be particularly valuable for vulnerable students who are struggling academically.

Shutdowns in some communities can be especially hard on school employees who don’t have much, if any, paid time off.

Congress and White House officials are reportedly negotiating a nationwide paid leave policy that would include public school workers, but the details and timing of the policy remain vague. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., have introduced a bill that would mandate all employers nationwide to provide 14 days of paid leave in the event of an emergency like the coronavirus outbreak. President Donald Trump and White House officials have floated the possibility of tax cuts and other unspecified relief measures.

But for now, states and districts are wrestling with difficult decisions on their own.

A Crucial Calculation

“I don’t know that it’s fair to say that there’s one general approach that everyone is taking,” said Francisco Negrón, chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association. Decisions on when to close and how to compensate employees “are going to be really impacted by everything from the geographic location to the demographics to the size” of the district, he said. They’re also affected by state mandates for annual instructional time.

The crucial calculation, Negrón said, is “the well-being of employees, balanced against the operational needs of the school district.” His organization is recommending school boards make leave policy decisions based on the severity of the outbreak in their communities and that they consider offering “sick leave pools,” allowing employees with an overabundance of sick leave to donate some to those with fewer available days.

In most cases, local school boards have the final say on how sick leave is administered for teachers and nonteacher personnel alike, taking into account recommendations from school officials and labor unions where applicable.

Teachers in several states are legally prohibited from collective bargaining, and many nonteacher employees and contractors lack union representation.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is calling for “a broad federal sick leave in cases of pandemics and global health emergencies.” That would enable school districts to implement “liberal paid leave policies that are beyond what is in contracts or statutes.”

“People shouldn’t have to think about whether or not they must go to work if they have a fever because they’re not going to be able to provide for their families,” she said.

The sudden scramble to encourage school staff members to stay home while weighing the pros and cons of closing schools offers a reminder of the ongoing challenges K-12 education faces. Teachers are in short supply in some regions, and the same goes for substitute teachers. Major gaps in funding and resources dictate how robustly schools can respond to an emergency, as well as how much access students have to educational materials and basic necessities like meals.

‘Reasonable Relief’ for Staff

In Washington state, which so far has seen the largest number of COVID-19 deaths among U.S. states, leave policies for educators are typically governed by collective bargaining agreements between local unions and school districts, according to Linda Mullen, a spokesperson for the Washington Education Association. The statewide union is recommending districts and unions modify those agreements now, as they would for more typical snow-related closures.

Teachers in the Seattle Public Schools, which enrolls more than 53,000 students, accrue one sick day each month. This spring, if the district closes, teachers will use sick leave for the first three days, and then the district will cover the remaining days off, up to 14 total, according to Tim Robinson, a district spokesperson. The same applies for teachers who take off because they have the virus or have been placed in quarantine. “If it goes beyond that, they’re back to a situation where they would need to take sick leave,” Robinson said.

Sheila Redick, executive director of HR strategy and operations for Seattle Public Schools, said in a statement that the ad hoc policy was inspired by nearby districts seeing a spike in teacher absences and forced quarantining.

“We knew that a strategy was necessary to assist employees in the event that they become similarly impacted,” she said. “The approach was developed in such a way that it would provide some reasonable relief to staff.”

Schools in Texas may take a different approach, having dealt with long-term closures in the aftermath of devastating hurricanes and tornadoes, according to Karen Smith, chief financial officer of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in suburban Houston.

Smith’s district has a separate “emergency closure leave” policy that kicks in when the entire district shuts down as a result of a disaster or epidemic. All employees, excluding substitute teachers and temporary workers, receive 10 days of paid leave. The school board has the authority to waive additional days if necessary, Smith said.

Some Districts Have No Plans Yet

The Parkrose School District in Oregon allots two emergency days each year for teachers to take off with normal compensation. If the district were to close for a longer period of time, “we would have to go back to the unions and the board to negotiate what those days would be,” said Sharie Lewis, the district’s director of business services operations. Staff would get paid normal wages during the closure, and all decisions about the number of sick days used would be made once the closures are over, she said.

The district has two main unions: one for teachers and other certified staff members, and another for noncertified employees like cafeteria staff and maintenance workers. If members of one union need more sick time than members of the other, it’s possible the unions could come to a leave-sharing agreement, Lewis said.

While many of the ramifications of widespread school closures remain hypothetical at this point, organizations that advocate for nonteacher personnel have already sprung into action. The American Association of School Personnel Administrators (AASPA) is working on resources that will identify the challenges facing nonteacher employees, according to Kelly Coash-Johnson, executive director of AASPA.

Joe Rugola, executive director of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, has begun meeting with his organization’s professional staff to strategize advocacy should members be out of work for a prolonged period. The plan is to push for uniformly continuing pay for all affected employees in the event of a closure.

“When people are talking about public education and public schools, they typically tend to think about the teachers,” Rugola said.

But that leaves out secretaries, bus drivers, custodians, food service workers, classroom assistance, maintenance staffers, and other people who keep the education system afloat: “If the kids don’t get to school, if they don’t have anybody to give them their medicine, clean up their classrooms, and feed them their food, obviously instruction doesn’t move,” he said.

Districts in Ohio have dealt with many emergencies over the years, including several outbreaks of the more commonplace flu earlier this year. Rugola is optimistic that districts and state officials will be sympathetic to his members’ demands, especially since public schools represent the most significant employers in many parts of the state, including cities like Columbus.

Still, no one can predict exactly what will happen in the coming weeks, and where the burden will fall to compensate school workers affected by the outbreak. Matthew Hardy, a spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers, said his organization, like many others, is still “assessing what the landscape is out there.”

“We certainly expect and advocate that our members have a voice in the discussions—not only clearly communicated with, but are actively engaged at school sites and at the district levels in order to advocate for our members and for our students,” he said.

An alternative version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2020 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as If School Is Closed, Who Gets Paid?

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