School & District Management

Schools Are Ditching COVID Leave Policies, Even as the Virus Surges Again

By Mark Lieberman — July 26, 2022 6 min read
Close up of a woman's hands holding rapid covid -19 test with a positive result.
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Numerous school districts are abandoning their extra sick leave offerings for employees who have to miss work due to COVID—even as a highly transmissible variant of the virus drives up infection rates yet again.

In recent months, districts in Cobb County, Ga.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Houston; Little Rock, Ark.; and Montgomery County, Md., among others, shifted to requiring employees to use their own sick days when they’re out for COVID reasons, rather than offering COVID-specific leave like they did from 2021 through earlier this year.

The Higley district in Gilbert, Ariz., last school year invested $675,000 in federal COVID relief funds—about 11 percent of what it received from the American Rescue Plan—to create a sick leave bank for employees who missed work due to COVID. But this year, the federal funds are running dry, and the district’s operating budget doesn’t have room. Employees will have to use regular sick days if COVID forces them to stay home.

“Less than 1 percent of our total staff and student population have recorded a case of COVID so far,” two days into the school year, which stated July 25, said Tyler Moore, the district’s chief financial officer. “The need was not there as it was last year.”

These districts are now in line with the thousands more that stopped offering employees additional time off to deal with COVID once the federal government stopped requiring them to do so on Dec. 31, 2020. The policy changes come as fears of staffing shortages and operational chaos mount ahead of the upcoming school year.

Employees who lack a strong bank of sick days could have to sacrifice pay while quarantining, or head back to work before they’re recovered from COVID or finished taking care of loved ones.

“If you are telling people they can’t come to work, you can’t take their sick time. If they don’t have sick time, you can’t take their pay,” said Nancy Velardi, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association for the 96,000-student Pinellas district in central Florida.

After the Pinellas district nixed its COVID leave policy in March, Velardi and her colleagues successfully lobbied to extend the policy through the end of last school year and provide back pay to those who lost income. She was planning to raise the issue again for the upcoming school year at a school board meeting Tuesday.

More than 250 district employees had to take up to a week of unpaid leave last year because they had previously drained their sick days on a surgery or another illness, Velardi said.

“Since most people are living paycheck to paycheck, that was an incredible hardship,” Velardi said.

Professional male social distancing or self quarantining inside a coronavirus pathogen.
iStock/Getty Images Plus

Policies shift as virus threat persists

More than half of school district leaders and principals who answered a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey in February said they weren’t offering employees any emergency leave due to COVID beyond their typical sick-day allotment.

Slightly more than a quarter, though, said employees got between six and 10 extra paid days off. Another 3 percent said employees got up to 20 extra days.

That survey landed in the middle of the devastating winter surge brought on by the omicron variant of COVID. Since then, hospitalizations and deaths have taken a nosedive nationwide, and most governments have loosened public health protocols like requirements to wear masks indoors and isolate for 10 days if exposed to the virus.

In some cases, changing policies around COVID leave reflect evolving attitudes towards the threat the virus poses. A spokesperson for the Hillsborough school system in Florida, which now requires employees to use their own sick time to deal with COVID, said the district is following state health guidance and “handling this like any other communicable disease, like the flu.”

But hundreds of Americans continue to die each day from the virus, tens of thousands are hospitalized, and a substantial portion of people who contract COVID, including many educators, report long-term symptoms, which can persist for months or even years.

See Also

Kathleen Law, a teacher in Oregon, has seen long-term COVID affect her ability to work full-time.
Kathleen Law, a teacher in Happy Valley, Ore., has seen longterm COVID impact her ability to work.
Howard Lao for Education Week

The highly transmissible nature of the currently circulating variant, known as BA.5, means the number of people testing positive is higher than during previous surges. Nearly 42 percent of U.S. counties currently have high levels of community spread, an increase of more than six percentage points over the previous week. Another 37 percent have medium levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

COVID-19 vaccines and boosters blunt the risk of severe disease and death, but only one-third of Americans have gotten a booster. Three in 10 educators said this spring they hadn’t had a booster shot, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey.

A growing number of people are also reporting getting COVID multiple times a few months apart, which means people may end up having more than one bout of time off work.

Some districts, like the Augusta schools in Virginia, have held firm with COVID leave. At the state level, California is requiring districts to offer COVID leave to school employees through at least Sept. 30.

But most states don’t have such a policy. For instance, Kentucky lawmakers in March changed the state’s COVID leave requirements for schools, requiring employees to use their own sick leave before becoming eligible for additional paid time off.

Best practices keep evolving, and it’s tough to keep up

Some district leaders aren’t sure how to handle the convergence of rising virus risk and dwindling policy response to the pandemic.

Ken Wallace, superintendent of the Maine Township district in Illinois, said he hasn’t figured out how his district will handle paid time off for employees who test positive this year.

He’s hopeful that society can eventually start treating the disease like any other. But he’s seen firsthand how COVID can be disruptive even when it doesn’t send someone to the hospital. His son recently contracted the virus and missed work because he had a 100-degree fever.

“There’s no doubt that the current variant is both very contagious and certainly has the potential to keep people out of work,” he said.

Moore in Arizona worries about growing competition among area districts to recruit and retain employees. For the first time, the district hasn’t fully staffed its teacher force going into a new school year. If COVID worsens agains, extra paid leave could be a worthwhile recruiting tool.

“It seems like an everyday battle in which another district is making some type of additional compensation or benefit enhancement to their employees,” Moore said. “If you’re not keeping pace, it’s the wild west out here.”

In the Pinellas district, Velardi said she and her colleagues are debating whether to ask the district to extend its COVID leave policy, or to settle for permission to use the district’s sick leave bank to support people who need more sick days off than they were allotted.

Right now the district only opens the sick leave bank for “catastrophic illnesses.” Velardi still isn’t sure whether COVID qualifies. But after seeing her husband get COVID three times, she’s inclined to believe the need for ongoing paid leave is paramount.

“We still don’t know enough about the long-term effects of COVID not to consider it a catastrophic illness,” Velardi said.

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