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Federal guidelines providing school system employees up to 10 days of quarantine leave expired at the end of 2020, but the Cumberland County Board of Education has approved its own policy ensuring school system employees can take time away from work due to exposure to or illness from the virus.

Tony Brock, 5th District representative, said, “As hard as our people have worked in the school system, this is a small benefit that we can offer them. It’s a bargain for us all to get our people in the building, but take care of them when they’re physically unable to be there.”

The school system has been providing remote instruction to students in grades 3-12 since returning to classes Jan. 6 due to a high number of active cases in the community. On Sunday there were 861 active cases in Cumberland County.

On Friday, there were 26 active cases among students and 20 among staff members, with 201 students and 14 staff members in quarantine due to having had close contact with another individual who tested positive for the virus.

“We have a proposed possible policy that you as a board may elect to pass, if you so choose, which would continue the benefits that the previous policy that expired Dec. 31 provided to our employees,” Director of Schools Ina Maxwell said. “I would strongly suggest the passage of a policy that continues these benefits through the school year. It would continue to provide the benefits our teachers, our employees need should they need to use the two weeks, 80 hours, of FFCRA leave.”

The policy provides school system employees up to two weeks of paid sick leave if they: are unable to work or telework due to a quarantine or isolation order; advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to COVID-19; is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms; caring for an individual subject to quarantine or isolation, provided the individual has a personal relationship with the employee; or caring for a son or daughter whose place of care is closed.

Stace Karge, 9th District representative, asked if the policy would reset the leave for all employees.

“My concern is our teachers and staff may need this numerous times. Have we run into that already? Have they had to use their own leave?”

Maxwell said the prior policy only allowed 80 hours of leave. Employees needing to be off a longer time have used their accrued sick leave.

Kim Bray, human resources supervisor, said, “We have had a few people who have had to use their own sick days because they have exceeded the 10 days provided under FFCRA. Most folks have stayed under the 10 days.”

The time individuals must quarantine varies by the circumstances. While the standard quarantine is 14 days after last exposure, that can extend to up to 24 days for individuals living with someone who has tested positive for the virus. The proposed policy would not restart the clock on the 10 days of leave.

Maxwell said, “We already have employees who are in need of this benefit.”

Karge asked if it would be possible to provide more time to teachers or staff who needed to be out multiple times.

“I’m really concerned over the next several weeks,” Karge said, pointing to a surge in local active cases. “If someone was quarantined in the first semester and now they actually get it — I don’t want to see anybody lose pay because we’re opening the schools.”

Jim Inman, 1st District representative, said, “With this, what we’re doing is offering the same benefit for the second half of the year that we have offered for the first half of the year. If we go a step further and say we’ll do more than the 80 hours, that puts the people in the first semester at a disadvantage.”

Teresa Boston, 8th District representative, said the board could consider extending the time for employees who have used more than the 80 allocated hours.

Shirley Parris, 3rd District representative, said the board should consider providing additional time.

Boston moved to approve the policy as presented, supported by Anita Hale, 4th District representative.

The policy was unanimously approved. Becky Hamby, 7th District representative, was not present.

The board continued discussion of extending the time available to employees for multiple quarantine or isolation periods.

Boston moved to direct administrative staff to bring a number of employees who exceed their allotted 10 days of novel coronavirus leave to the board for an extension, supported by Parris.

Karge said, “Are you saying come back with every person, or a blanket?”

Boston said she only wanted a number — no names or personal information.

“We could approve pay for those employees for all of their quarantine,” she said.

Karge said, “My preference would be if you’re quarantined multiple times and you’re in the school system, we need to pay you.”

Brock said, “We do not know how much this could be used. We can only guess. We are taking the financial liability of this. I think it’s a wonderful thing that we are doing that.”

Brock said the board can revisit the matter later in the school year. 

“Just see how many people have far exceeded the 10 days that we are going to take care of them and make sure they’re not going to take on a financial loss,” he said. 

The school system budgets for salaries and pay for all staff. However, it does incur additional expenses when substitutes must be hired for teachers, bus drivers or teaching assistants. There could be some federal funding available to reimburse those expenses in the first semester.

It was also noted that, should the board grant reinstatement of sick days, the employees would not receive a check in that amount. They would have that time returned to their accrued sick time.

The motion passed unanimously.

Julia Timson, Cumberland County Education Association representative, said she knew of teachers who would appreciate the extension of the quarantine benefit.

“I talked to two teachers. One was sent home the first semester due to exposure to a student. She used her days then. Now, she’s at home sick with the virus, and she’s concerned about her sick days being depleted,” Timson said.

Another had taken time to care for her daughter, and quarantined. Now that teacher was home sick.

Timson said she believed it was allowable for teachers to teach from home, provided they are not sick, while a substitute was with their class. But they were not charged sick days if they were teaching from home.

“Once they start exhibiting symptoms, my understanding is you don’t feel like doing anything,” she said.

Maxwell said the FFRC did not allow teachers receiving the benefit to be required to work.

Bray added, “I just have a form. I just know they’re in quarantine. I didn’t know their circumstances.”

Inman added there could be a number of circumstances preventing virtual teaching.

“If the students are virtual, I think it would be fine for the teacher to still teach in quarantine,” he said. “But somebody’s got to be in that classroom if the students are in person.”

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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