Working in crowded school buildings during a pandemic has been anxiety-inducing for many educators. But for some school employees who have run out of paid leave, there’s a financial cost of getting sick, too.
Many of the nation’s more than 6 million K-12 workers came to rely early in the pandemic on the assurance that they could still get paid if they had to stay home while sick or exposed to COVID-19. Since federal requirements for employers to offer paid leave expired before this school year was underway, some school districts have taken up the mantle on their own, providing an extra five, 10, or even 20 days for COVID-related absences, according to media reports and interviews with district leaders.
But many districts nationwide—including the Madison schools in Wisconsin, the Wichita schools in Kansas, and the Oakland schools in California—are not currently offering paid leave separate from what their employees already receive in a typical year.
In effect, an unusually large number of teachers and other K-12 employees this year risk having their pay docked if they have to quarantine because they’ve come down with COVID and don’t have any sick time left.
Districts are wary of shutting school buildings down for long periods of time due to political pressure and the urgency of providing academic support to students during an extended tumultuous period. They’re also facing a nationwide shortage of substitute teachers to cover for employees who have to be absent because they’re sick, quarantining at home, or taking care of loved ones.
“Every day counts right now unfortunately because we are in such a staffing crunch,” said Emily Warnecke, the spokeswoman for the Illinois Association of School Administrators, which is lobbying against a statewide measure currently before the governor that would mandate extra COVID leave for school district employees.
Yet many teachers and other school employees feel like the lack of COVID-specific sick days is adding insult to injury. This school year has already been exhausting and demoralizing. Teachers and other school workers have had to navigate severe staff shortages and the fear of contracting COVID-19 in classrooms as they work to address gaps in student learning and an influx of student trauma stemming from the pandemic.
Teachers said in interviews that receiving COVID sick days so they don’t have to use their own paid time off if they contract the virus would feel like an acknowledgment of the hard work they’re doing in an extraordinarily difficult time.
Denise Specht, the president of Education Minnesota, that state’s teachers’ union, said some local unions have been able to negotiate the continuation of COVID leave during the collective bargaining process, but others have not.
“It is definitely adding to the anxiety and stress here in Minnesota and the uncertainty of what to do,” she said, adding that in some districts, teachers can teach from home while quarantined, but that’s not an option everywhere. And that is only feasible if the educator is feeling well enough to work.
Typically, teachers get about a dozen sick and personal days a year, and can roll over their sick leave from year to year with no cap. But for new teachers who haven’t accumulated a bank of leave, a couple bouts of illness in the fall could have already drained their sick days for the year, leaving them with no reserves as cases surge across the country due to the hyper-contagious Omicron variant.
Employees who are new parents are in a challenging position, too, since many exhaust their sick leave to take time off upon the birth or adoption of a child. Parents of school-aged children might have had to use some of their sick time if their child was exposed to or testing positive for COVID. And some teachers already used a large portion of sick leave with a positive COVID-19 case in the fall, yet it’s possible to be infected with the virus more than once.
Leah Gimbel, a high school math teacher in Washington, D.C., contracted COVID-19 in September and had to use a chunk of her own sick leave for the year. She typically uses her personal days on Jewish holidays, so she only has a few days left this year—meaning if she gets the Omicron variant and can’t teach remotely, she’d likely have to take unpaid time off.
“It’s frustrating and upsetting,” she said. “I’m there in the building every day, getting exposed not infrequently.”
Educators are told by health officials to stay home if they’re not feeling well, but without comprehensive sick day policies, that’s easier said than done, Specht said.
“We all need to do that, … but that only works when you’ve got the leave,” Specht said, adding that some of schools’ lowest-wage workers, like bus drivers and custodians, may live paycheck to paycheck. “It puts your family and your family budget in jeopardy. You think, ‘It’s my responsibility to stay home when I’m sick, but I also have to pay the rent, I have to pay my family’s insurance’—it doesn’t feel like a winnable situation.”
Paid leave policies differ across the country
Policies among districts that are offering paid leave vary considerably, according to interviews, an Education Week analysis of numerous districts’ paid leave policies, and the National Council on Teacher Quality’s fall 2021 policy tracker. Some are contingent on employees being vaccinated; some only extend leave to employees who show proof that they tested positive for COVID; some require an employee’s COVID case to have been a result of exposure at a school building. Some newly enacted policies don’t apply retroactively to the start of the school year, or don’t allow employees to hold on to COVID-specific days they don’t use after the school year ends.
America lacks a federal requirement for employers to offer paid leave of any kind. Starting in March 2020, Congress authorized a nationwide requirement for many employers, including school districts, to offer paid leave for employees dealing with COVID.
That policy expired as 2021 began. From April to September 2021, school districts and other employers were eligible for tax credits in exchange for voluntarily offering COVID-specific paid leave. That policy, too, is no longer in effect.
In addition, “even if folks do have COVID-19 sick leave, there is concern or reluctance to use it, even if it would be in the interest of colleagues to use it,” said Jared Make, the vice president of A Better Balance, a nationwide nonprofit advocate for paid family and medical leave. Make’s organization receives requests for legal help from workers across all industries, including K-12 education.
“There’s a fear: ‘What if my child gets sick, or my elderly parent? I might need to use some of that time,’” Make said. “It’s a real shortcoming that we don’t have a clear legal right across this country to COVID-19 sick leave specifically, let alone a guaranteed right to sick time.”
In interviews, some teachers said they’ve heard anecdotally that some school employees who have mild symptoms are not taking a COVID-19 test because they can’t afford to miss work if they test positive. Research may back that up: Workers without paid sick leave are less likely to take time off when ill, according to a study conducted before the pandemic.
“In general, teachers are going to do the right thing and stay home because it’s our nightmare to give COVID to our kids,” said Megan Mullaly, a 6th grade teacher in San Jose, Calif.
But, she added, “it feels like the people who do the right thing are getting punished for it.”
Districts fear additional days off will make staffing shortages worse
Some school administrators now say they’re wary of extending so much paid leave to employees that staff would rush to take advantage of it, exacerbating ongoing staffing shortages that have plagued districts all school year.
In Illinois, both houses of the state legislature have passed a bill that would require school districts to pay employees for as many days as they need to recover from COVID-19 or quarantine away from work per public health guidelines. Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, has said he opposes the bill and wants it to cover only vaccinated school employees. If Pritzker doesn’t sign or veto the bill by the end of the month, it will become law regardless.
The legislation has been supported by teachers’ unions but opposed by the Illinois Association of School Administrators. Warnecke, the group’s spokeswoman who also served as superintendent of the East Alton district until Dec. 31, said some districts in the state have already received calls from school employees who think the proposed state law is in effect and want to take advantage of the provision for more time off.
If a school employee’s child were exposed to COVID-19 and required to quarantine at home, the employee “might have been willing to find other arrangements for their child” if COVID-specific paid leave weren’t an option for the employee, Warnecke said.
If the law were to pass, “because they know they have access to unlimited paid leave days, maybe they will be less likely to try to find other options for care,” she said.
The result, Warnecke said, could be more-severe staff shortages than the ones schools already face, and more challenging conditions for student learning.
The administrators’ organization is also concerned that a broad statewide mandate could discourage districts from collaborating with their local bargaining units on policies that work for the district’s needs.
Some districts have already done that collaboration. The Maine Township district 20 miles north of Chicago is among the Illinois districts that has developed its own approach to handling paid leave during the pandemic.
Rather than having a one-size-fits-all policy, the district handles requests for paid time off on a case-by-case basis. Vaccinated employees—representing 97 percent of the district’s workforce—who catch COVID will generally get as much paid time off as they need to recover, said Ken Wallace, the district’s superintendent.
“The vast majority of our staff are acting in the absolute best faith that they can,” Wallace said. “I just have a hard time thinking it’s OK to charge them for time off when they’re getting sick when they came to work during a pandemic.”
Wallace and his team resisted setting a blanket 10-day COVID leave policy after seeing some situations where employees legitimately needed more than 10 days off to recover from illness.
“Right now my instinct is to try to be as flexible as I can, and try to work with the people who are trying to educate our kids, and if that’s 10 days so be it, if that’s five days so be it, if that’s 15 days so be it,” Wallace said.
Even though Wallace’s district is already aligned with what the proposed Illinois law would require, he’s still concerned that a statewide mandate, on top of other recently enacted requirements, could burden already-beleaguered understaffed district offices that are drowning in legal paperwork.
‘We didn’t want to make it too easy to miss work’
Other district leaders and boards that have resisted extending COVID-specific leave cite the rising cost of hiring substitutes—and the steep challenge of finding enough of them—to cover for employees who are out for any length of time.
The Springfield district in Missouri capped its COVID-specific paid leave offering at five days for employees who test positive or have to take care of a K-8 child who’s sick or quarantining at home.
“If we gave too much leave, they may not be as likely to take precautions outside of work, or may not be as likely to get vaccinated,” said John Mulford, the district’s deputy superintendent of operations. “We didn’t want to make it too easy to miss work. We also wanted to be sympathetic to people who do come down with COVID-19. It’s a fine line we’re trying to balance.”
The more employees are out on leave, the more other people will need to step in—and that’s a challenge for districts right now.
According to an October survey by the EdWeek Research Center, 77 percent of district leaders and principals said substitute teachers are hard to come by. Some districts, like the Dover schools in New Jersey and the Lansing schools in Michigan, have taken to raising wages by as much as double to tackle the nationwide shortage of people willing to step in temporarily for educators during the still-raging pandemic.
A handful of districts so far, including Bryant schools in Arkansas and Ouachita Parish schools in Louisiana, have allocated a few hundred thousand dollars out of their federal COVID relief aid funds to pay for more substitutes as a result of teachers taking COVID-related time off.
Other districts say the minor costs associated with offering generous paid leave are outweighed by the consequences of failing to offer it.
The Brewer district in Maine gave employees year-round permission to tap into its sick leave pool, typically only open for applications at the start of the school year. Employees who need to stay home for COVID-related reasons can access the pool regardless of how many of their own sick days they’ve accrued.
The sick leave pool for teachers has thousands of unused days for employees to use. Gregg Palmer, the district’s superintendent, said some of his donated leave from when he was a teacher in the 1990s is still in there. Non-teachers have their own pool, which is smaller, but they can borrow from teachers and administrators if it runs out.
Palmer said he isn’t worried about employees abusing the generous policy. “I think that that concern goes up when you have people far away from your school district creating a policy that the locals have to enact,” Palmer said. “If you’re treating people right, they’re going to be in when they’re able to be in. Too often I think we guard against the fear of the exception.”
He’s also not sweating the cost of substitutes to cover for employees who take off. “The cost is artificially capped,” he said. “Nobody in America can hire enough substitutes right now. If we need 14 subs tomorrow, and we can only hire six, then that’s it, we can only hire six.”
But paid leave can have other hidden costs for school districts as well. The Johnson City schools in Tennessee spent $3,400 on part-time human resources staff to help manage its paid leave offerings while the federal government required them. “There was a large administrative burden” as well, said Collin Brooks, a spokesperson for the district.
Now, without a COVID-specific leave option in place, teachers who have to stay home due to COVID can tap into the district’s sick leave pool. Classified staff can donate their accrued sick time to each other, Brooks said.
In Madison, Wis., school board member Nicki Vander Meulen introduced a resolution in October to provide 10 days of COVID-specific leave to all of the district’s employees, including hourly workers. But she couldn’t secure enough votes to get the item on the agenda, and the process of developing a policy has dragged out for months.
“It’s paperwork, and it’s administration of paperwork,” Vander Meulen said. “We have an understaffed human resources department who are doing their best to keep up.”
The district just shut down for a few days to give administrators more time to set up COVID-19 testing and other mitigation strategies. A paid leave policy still isn’t in place. Vander Meulen believes such a policy is critical to avoid the long-term costs of lost instructional time and chaos around necessary school closures.
“How many people are going to stay at most jobs when they get 10 or less sick days a year? Are they really going to be able to comply with the request to test? They can’t afford to miss work,” she said. “So they don’t, and then this pandemic keeps mutating.”
Holly Peele, Library Director contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Some Teachers Are Running Out of Sick Days, And Administrators Are Hesitant to Help