School & District Management

Paying School Employees During Prolonged Shutdowns Is a Major Dilemma

By Mark Lieberman — March 19, 2020 7 min read
School Resource Officer Donald Lee locks the gates of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School for Science and Technology in New Orleans after all the students left on March 13. Louisiana, like most states, has ordered public schools to close down for extended periods.

School districts across the country are scrambling to find work for non-teacher employees who could be displaced from their regular jobs by shutdowns that could last the rest of the academic year. The rapidly evolving prospects for the nation’s K-12 system as the novel coronavirus pandemic persists are leaving many of those workers uncertain and worried about the future.

Kansas officials have already announced schools there won’t reopen for in-person instruction until the fall, and other districts have made similar arrangements, with more states likely to follow. (Education Week is tracking school closures nationwide.)

Many schools have transitioned to remote teaching, which usually translates to teachers continuing to get paid on a regular schedule. Some local school boards, including in Indiana, Wisconsin and Mississippi, have also passed emergency measures to continue paying school employees.

President Trump on Wednesday signed a bill that will provide two weeks of paid leave to employees at schools who are being treated for COVID-19 (the illness caused by novel coronavirus) or are self-quarantining. The bill also affords two weeks of leave at two-thirds pay and 10 weeks of leave at full pay for employees whose child care is disrupted as a result of the pandemic.

Many school districts are the largest employers in their communities, including cafeteria workers, food service workers, custodians, paraeducators, special education assistants and bus drivers, many of whom work hourly rather than on salary or on contract. The outbreak also affects school workers with irregular schedules, like substitute teachers; Highline Public Schools in Washington state, for instance, has canceled all of its substitutes, the Seattle Times reported.

A Major Dent in School Budgets

Long-term closures threaten to put a major dent in schools’ budgets, which run on an annual cycle and typically don’t have a hefty repository of surplus funds, according to Francisco Negrón, chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association. “Generally most of their dollars are being spent and they’re going straight into the classroom,” Negrón said.

The early round of two-week closures didn’t pose an immediate threat to schools’ coffers, Negrón said, because many schools already had a built-in cushion of spring break or other planned holidays on the schedule.

But without relief from federal or state governments, closing for the rest of the year could be a different matter, said Joe Rugola, executive director of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees. While layoffs don’t currently seem imminent in his state, “I don’t think there’s any assurance that there are any classes of our members” who wouldn’t be affected if the closure continues through the summer, he said.

An Uncertain Future

Susan Bizarro works 25 to 30 hours a week at Parsippany-Troy Hills Township School District in New Jersey as a transportation aide, helping students with disabilities get on and off buses in the morning and afternoon.

Bizarro initially heard that she would have to use sick leave during the district’s closure, but she had already used up her allotted days earlier this year. She was later assured that she’ll be working during the shutdown, helping with the district’s meal distribution program and filling out paperwork from home. “I don’t know how many hours they’re actually going to pay us,” she said.

She’s particularly concerned about making rent and staying healthy as a single mother with a son who has asthma. The board of education representative in touch with her has been “extremely sympathetic,” she said. “I think it’s going to work out in the end.”

Not everyone has had their nerves soothed. Christine Owens serves as site coordinator for a district-run afterschool program that provides meals and activities for students Monday through Thursday at Lyndon Town School in Vermont’s Kingdom East school district. The program remained open for part of this week, presenting Owens with a difficult dilemma: Stay home and potentially deprive students of their needs, or risk transmitting the virus to her mother and in-laws, who typically watch her son while she’s at work.

“Everybody right now is extremely scared,” Owens said. “They’re worried about providing for families, they’re worried about taking care of their kids and their own families.”

Owens has a handful of employees, including a couple of senior citizens and some college students, some of whom also work at the school as instructional assistants or substitute teachers. Because they are considered staff and aren’t protected by a union, they don’t get paid time off or most other benefits, despite working full-time, she said.

Starting next week, she’ll be working largely from home, but she said she might be required to ask school principals for work instead of getting assignments from her supervisor, the district’s director of afterschool programs. She thinks she might end up working from home, mainly at night, about 20 hours a week.

“There’s a lot of ifs and not a lot of solid answers right now,” she said.

Keeping People Working as Much as Possible

That’s in part because decision makers across the country are charting new territory, identifying tasks that employees can do without risking exposure to the virus and staying in compliance with the federal government’s social-distancing guidelines.

At the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Texas, district leaders have done just that. “Our grounds crews, they’re still working and mowing. They’re outside, they’re not in a confined space, usually working by themselves, not close to anybody,” said Karen Smith, the district’s chief financial officer.

In Washington state, where coronavirus first surfaced in the U.S., state officials have implored agencies that support school districts to “maintain staff pay,” says Trisha Schock, executive director of administrative services for the state’s North Central Educational Service District.

On Tuesday, Schock and her colleagues brainstormed ideas for “other types of meaningful work that staff can complete, within obviously their physical abilities.” Bus drivers can transport school meals; athletic coaches can maintain fields; tech staffers can provide training on electronic communication platforms. “One person threw out doing some planting of flower beds” or parking-lot striping, Schock said.

Schools in the state will be able to keep paying employees as long as state and federal funds continue to roll in, Schock said. “If our state government ended up in a situation where they couldn’t maintain the state budget, then we would be in a whole different ballpark. We’d be laying people off left and right,” she said.

Despite the grim circumstances, many negotiations have been cordial. Rugola’s Ohio union has even waived some contractual requirements for school districts to provide additional emergency pay to essential workers beyond their regular allotments. “Everybody’s pulling together in the same direction on this thing,” he said.

Still, there are plenty of complexities to navigate, said Tricia Schroeder, executive vice president of SEIU Local 925, which represents more than 6,000 custodians, peer educators, food service workers, bus drivers and other K-12 workers in Washington state. Her union’s advocacy began a couple weeks ago when it secured assurance that no members will be kicked off state-funded health insurance.

Even at the local level, equity is a factor, she said: “Very large districts that serve communities with major medical centers and world-class hospitals have a different need versus a rural community where literally nobody has a case reported yet.”

Technicalities can also get in the way, as in Oregon, where leaders in one district say they can’t pay more than 2,000 classified employees now because they then wouldn’t be eligible for pay if the school year extends into the summer, the Statesman Journal reported.

The need to continue serving the community can also clash with health officials’ pleas to avoid going out or interacting in close quarters with other people. “If the district’s like, we need this group of people to report to work and keep our school buildings open that we just told everyone not to be in, that’s an interesting message for people to digest,” Schroeder said.

Educators nationwide are anxious about the welfare of students as well as their own.

“I think school employees and our members are handling this really well. They both are reacting to uncertainty, but also so many of them are ready to rise to the occasion and figure out what’s best in our communities,” Schroeder said. “There are absolutely the handful that are medically fragile or live with someone who’s compromised. They’re scared. Everywhere in between, there’s lots of little questions.”

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