The Dec. 31 expiration of paid sick leave and family and medical leave policies that were part of federal COVID-19 relief laws has left school districts and their employees scrambling, with some districts voluntarily extending the benefits while others are requiring teachers and other workers to dip into their own accumulated leave if they are sick or need to quarantine.
“It’s a stressor,” said Anne Thomas-Abbott, a teacher and dean of an “upper house” health sciences program at Fulton High School in Knoxville, Tenn. “If you have to quarantine for 10 days, that is a big chunk of your sick leave.”
Thomas-Abbott said her district, the 62,000-student Knox County school system, has not extended the federal benefits that expired. With 26 years of tenure, she has some 100 days of leave in the bank, but new teachers may just have their first annual allotment of 12 days, which can go fast if they need to use it for COVID-related reasons.
“If you’re a first-year teacher, it’s a big deal,” Thomas-Abbott said.
Carly Harrington, a spokeswoman for the Knox County district, said extending the leave policies “would require the board of education to take action to change the policy. It would be an additional cost.”
Thomas-Abbott said she and other educators are crossing their fingers for President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan, which would at least temporarily restore the extra leave policies and in some respects provide further benefits to employers and workers.
She is not alone in looking to the Biden plan for relief.
“This has been an incredibly tough two school years for districts,” said Lynn Rossi Scott, a Fort Worth, Texas, education lawyer who counsels districts and private schools. “They become aware of a bill, then it becomes law with some different provisions, and then they are told something else by state education and health authorities. They have been having to pivot constantly.”
Some districts choose to extend benefits
Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) passed by Congress last spring, workers at most employers (including school districts) were granted up to two weeks of paid sick leave for COVID-19-related reasons. The law also provided up to 12 weeks of leave at partial pay for workers who needed to care for a child whose school or day-care center closed.
But that law was slated to expire Dec. 31, and did so when Congress did not extend it with the December COVID-19 relief bill.
Some districts began considering extending the extra leave on their own.
“Around November, when we still had not heard about the leave measures being extended, we started discussing what we would do,” said Cicely Tuttle, the assistant superintendent of human resources for the 23,000-student Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District in Texas. “We knew the right thing to do.”
The district has spent an estimated $175,000 so far this school year on the extended leave provisions, Tuttle said. (While private employers may seek tax credits for the extended benefits, public employers were left on the hook for the FFCRA’s requirements.)
Scott MacDonald, a former school district human resources director and now a consultant, said many districts were using their own resources to extend the leave provisions, with a variety of lengths of time and benefit amounts.
“School districts have been creative,” he said. “Nobody really knows what the right answer is.”
He notes that Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, issued an executive order in January that extended the two weeks of paid sick leave that the FFCRA required last year to school employees in the state.
In South Carolina, state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman issued a memo on Jan. 8 to school districts pointing out that they could use money from the federal CARES Act to cover the extended leave policies.
“We started hearing the anxiety from teachers,” Spearman said in an interview. “Many of our districts have been back in school for five days a week now, and we knew teachers were very concerned about their leave.”
Many districts in her state did not realize they could use money from the CARES Act’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund to cover the extended leave, the state superintendent said.
“There is funding available,” said Spearman. “It was a matter of districts understanding that they can use it.”
But not every state is handling the CARES Act education fund in the same way. Scott, the Texas education lawyer, said her state has not made that funding available to extend leave policies.
District-level negotiations are taking place
And some districts have simply not taken steps to extend the leave at district expense.
Julie Sellers, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, said her union presented a proposed memorandum of understanding to the Cincinnati school district to extend the leave policies after schools in the city began to reopen Feb. 1.
“We have had teachers who quarantined, and they have had to use their own sick leave,” Sellers said. “That is just creating bad karma with your employees.”
Dan Hoying, the general counsel of Cincinnati Public Schools, said public school teachers and employees have generous leave benefits under Ohio law, but he was reviewing the union’s proposal.
“In theory, we agree that having available leave is an important component of returning to school,” he said. “I expect we will reach an agreement on having available leave options.”
Under the Biden plan, the two weeks of unpaid sick leave for COVID-19 reasons would be restored, and workers would get an additional reason to use the leave—to take time off to receive the vaccine. The family and medical leave benefits would be expanded under the Biden plan to as much as 14 weeks of paid sick and family and medical leave to help parents with child-care responsibilities when a school or care center is closed; for people who are caring for people with COVID-19 symptoms; or who are quarantining due to exposure.
A potentially big benefit for school districts is that the plan appears to propose that they get reimbursed by federal funds for the costs of these benefits, said Scott. “What we don’t know is if it would go back to 2020 or just cover 2021,” she said.
The Biden measure would expire Sept. 30.
The Biden plan, which covers many other pandemic-related issues such as a new round of stimulus payments for Americans, is currently making its way through congressional committees. The leave extensions have not been particularly controversial.
Tuttle, the assistant superintendent of the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district, said that her district’s lawyers have told school officials to “expect some movement” on the plan soon.
“But until we are told otherwise, we are just continuing with our local plan,” she said.