School districts now face a conundrum, with COVID cases surging and staff shortages persisting: How generous should they be with offering paid time off for people who have to be out because of COVID?
In 2020, the federal government required employers, including school districts, to provide COVID-specific paid leave. Until September 2021, the federal government offered some fiscal support to employers that opted to extend that additional leave.
Both of those policies have since expired, and only a handful of states have passed similar policies.
Some districts aren’t giving employees extra time off beyond their previously allotted sick time, even as the worst public health crisis in a century shows no immediate end in sight.
Administrators in those districts cite concerns about worsening the existing crisis of staff absences and temporary school closures by giving people opportunities to take time off even when they don’t absolutely need to.
Other districts, though, have put together COVID-specific paid leave policies for their employees, either in accordance with a state mandate or of their own volition.
“On some level I think we’re having a conversation about trust,” said Gregg Palmer, superintendent of the Brewer district in Maine. His district is allowing people at home because of COVID to use days from the district’s sick leave bank rather than draining their own accrued time off. “Do families trust that we’re keeping kids safe at school? Do staff trust that we’re looking out for their best interests? If we trust each other I think our chances of getting through this go up.”
Here are a few of the guiding questions districts are using to shape paid leave policies.
How many paid days off should employees get?
Among districts offering COVID-specific leave, policies offer anywhere from 5 days to 10, 15, and even 20 days off on top of their allotted sick leave.
Some district leaders are reluctant to offer so many extra days off that a surge of absenteeism among employees causes further staff shortage woes.
“The more COVID leave you offer, the more likely it is people will use that leave, which then increases your substitute costs,” said John Mulford, deputy superintendent of operations for the Springfield district in Missouri, which offers employees five days of COVID leave on top of their regular 8 to 12 sick days per year.
“That’s more time that students don’t have the primary teacher with them. It ultimately hurts the learning.”
Others have decided that offering more time off will prevent people from coming back to work prematurely, further spreading the virus, and will give people adequate time to recover from an illness themselves or take care of someone else who’s sick or stuck at home.
The Meridian district in Illinois added 20 days of COVID-specific leave for employees to use when they’re sick or out on quarantine.
“We looked at some of our worst-case scenarios from the previous year and tried to find a number that would cover the majority of people detrimentally impacted,” said PJ Caposey, the district’s superintendent.
Should unvaccinated employees be eligible?
Many districts are offering paid leave to all employees regardless of vaccination status. But some have decided that it’s worth rewarding employees who have taken an important step toward protecting their colleagues by getting vaccinated.
“If you’re doing everything you’ve been asked to do, you’ve gotten vaccinated, you’re coming to work, you get COVID for no other reason than you’re working in a pandemic, and you have to go home, I don’t think we should charge you a sick day,” said Ken Wallace, superintendent of the Maine Township district in Illinois. “I feel differently in the same conditions if you’ve chosen not to take the vaccine and you catch COVID. The data is right there in terms of the effectiveness of the vaccine.”
The downside of this approach is that it may require more paperwork and logistics to verify that people were vaccinated before approving the use of COVID leave days. Districts will also eventually need to consider whether to require COVID booster shots as a condition for paid leave eligibility.
Should classified and part-time employees be eligible?
Teachers aren’t the only school workers who need time off to deal with COVID. Many part-time and classified school employees—like bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria attendants, and instructional assistants—already get less paid leave offered to them than their full-time, tenured colleagues. Paid leave policies that leave out those workers risk exacerbating the sense that those crucial jobs are marginal, even as shortages for those positions are particularly acute.
In the Johnson City district in Tennessee, for instance, certified staff members can take days off from a sick leave bank, while classified staff members can only donate unused sick days to each other, according to a district spokesperson.
Should workers get COVID leave for days they already took off?
Some districts, like the Madison schools in Wisconsin, are just now creating policies for COVID leave employees can use for this school year. But many school workers have already taken time off this school year because of COVID.
Districts have to decide whether those employees who used their own sick leave or should get some of it back. The Fox C-6 district in Missouri, for instance, just passed a COVID leave policy that applies retroactive to Nov. 18, when the district stopped requiring masks in school buildings. The Ouachita Parish district in Louisiana passed a COVID leave policy in mid-September that applied retroactive to Aug. 1, before the school year started.
Should people who are impacted by but aren’t sick with COVID be eligible for COVID leave?
There are plenty of scenarios where a person is affected by COVID and unable to come to work despite not feeling sick themselves. They might be taking care of a sick child or other family member. They might be unable to afford or secure day care for a child who’s not sick but is required to stay home and quarantine after an exposure. They might have been exposed themselves and never end up testing positive, but still need to remain in quarantine.
All of these scenarios exist because of the unusual circumstances the pandemic has created. But districts don’t all agree on whether they should be covered in COVID-specific leave policies.
Some districts are taking a more expansive view of COVID days off than others. The Springfield district, for instance, allows employees to use COVID-specific leave when they’re taking care of a sick or quarantining child—but only if that child is in 8th grade or younger. “Typically a high school student doesn’t need a parent to stay home with them,” Mulford said.
The Fox C-6 district is among many that require employees to show a positive COVID test in order to qualify for the extra days off.
Where did the employee’s exposure take place?
Some districts, like the Meridian district in Illinois, are offering COVID leave to employees only when they can prove they were exposed or sickened with COVID as a result of working in the school building.
“If we can create a nexus to school, we count it as such,” Caposey, the Meridian superintendent, wrote in an email. “So, if Mr. Smith has three positive kids in his class and then tests positive, we count it. If Ms. Johnson is a direct contact of Timmy and has to quarantine, we count it. If we have no nexus at school, we do not count it.”
Making those determinations can be labor-intensive and “stressful,” said Jessica Duren, human resources director at the Portsmouth district in Virginia. Her team has been going back and forth on numerous occasions with district employees who claim they’re eligible for COVID leave because they were exposed at the school building.
In some cases, employees are choosing to quarantine out of an abundance of caution that’s not backed up by local and federal public health guidance, Duren said.
In others, though, employees are complying with the policy even if it appears they aren’t. One person applied for COVID leave for taking care of their sick child. Duren’s team denied the request at first, failing to make the connection to an at-school COVID case. But it turned out the employee was a bus driver, and her child had been exposed on her mother’s bus.
Parsing all these nuances “is a lot of extra work,” Duren said.
How much is all of this going to cost us?
There’s no straightforward answer. Some district leaders reason that they would have to pay for substitutes for employees who have to be out regardless of whether the district is giving them extra leave or not. Others counter that employees will likely take more days off if they’re given more opportunities to do so, necessitating higher substitute costs.
Some districts are using federal COVID relief funds and their own contingency accounts to pay for substitute teachers. But those federal funds are finite, and many districts are juggling dozens of priorities for them. Cash-strapped districts may struggle more than well-off districts to weigh the cost of providing COVID leave against the cost of withholding it.