At least 10 staff members at Wendell’s elementary school tested positive for COVID-19 last week, crippling staffing levels to the point the school had to close.
Last fall, those teachers would have been able to tap extra paid leave days for COVID illness, under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act from the federal government. But that benefit, and subsequent expansions, ran out last school year.
This year, districts are deciding on their own whether to offer extra sick days to teachers who contract COVID-19 — above their usual sick days— even if they pick up the virus at school. Approaches are mixed across the state. Some of Idaho’s largest districts have ended, or are planning to end the benefits. Others are tapping into federal funds to keep offering paid leave for teachers who need to get tested or quarantine because of COVID-19.
Wendell’s teachers will have to use regular sick days or personal leave to cover their COVID-related absences HR director Laurie Lancaster said, after the school board decided not to give extra sick days this year.
Fifteen miles down the road, in Buhl, teachers can qualify for up to four COVID-19 sick days before having to tap into their personal time.
The Idaho Education Association, Idaho’s teacher union, wants to see COVID-19 sick days extended. COVID-19 is surging among Idaho’s school aged kids this fall, and teachers are by and large instructing students in-person. Few districts are requiring masks.
“All of our educators have the responsibility to educate their students and be in their classrooms when it’s safe. If they catch this virus, they need to be taken care of. All of them are at risk right now,” said IEA president Layne McInelly.
Most teachers are given about 10 sick days at the start of the year, and some personal days. Those typically accumulate year-to-year. But if an educator catches COVID-19 this fall, or is exposed and has to quarantine, they could use their entire cache of sick days at the start of the year and be subject to unpaid leave for illnesses that arise later in the year, McInelly fears.
This issue has already come up in the Blaine County School District, where a number of staff members have had to quarantine due to COVID-19 this fall, H.R. Director Brooke Marshall told trustees at a board meeting last week.
A number of vaccinated staff members have gotten breakthrough COVID cases and had to quarantine under district policy. Some of those folks were new to the district, she said, and have been eating through their annual allotments of sick leave without any reserves to tap into.
“Often times people are in a situation in which they’re doing all they can, they’re wearing masks when they’re out and about and they end up in a situation where they test positive even when they do everything right,” Marshall said.
The cost of covering COVID leave is difficult to predict without knowing how many teachers might need to use it, Marshall told the board. Last year, from January through May of 2021, Blaine teachers used about 279 days of COVID leave, at a cost of $83,643.
After her presentation, trustees voted to give Blaine County teachers up to 10 COVID sick days this year on a case-by-case basis.
Buhl has also decided to cover some teacher sick days using federal funds, superintendent David Carson said. The school district will fund up to two COVID-19 sick days per educator, and teachers can access two more if they’ve opted into a districtwide sick-day bank. Teachers donate sick days to the bank to participate, and then they can draw on those reserves if they have an emergency.
The largest districts in the Treasure Valley have not decided to extend COVID sick leave this year.
Teachers in Nampa and Boise are back to using their regular sick days for COVID-19 related absences, district spokespeople say. Nampa teachers get 10 sick days and three personal days per year, and those can build up over time. Boise teachers get one day of sick leave for each projected month of service, and four personal-leave days for the year.
West Ada’s teachers have access to COVID-specific sick days through the end of September, spokeswoman Char Jackson said, but after that, staff will also need to return to regular sick days.
Sam Pérez, West Ada Education Association president, is hoping the district decides to extend that using upwards of $30 million the district received in COVID relief money. He considers the investment a step toward keeping West Ada’s teachers in the district long term.
“As most of us can see, the COVID variant is spreading like wildfire and shutting down schools. We don’t see relief from this in the near future,” Pérez said. “We just need some relief in case we do get affected, we know we won’t lose our income.”