As COVID cases rise, emergency leave unavailable for teachers

As COVID cases rise, emergency leave unavailable for teachers

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Most Alabama school teachers temporarily sent home this school year because they contract COVID-19, are exposed to it or are caring for their own children in quarantine will have to use their personal leave time to do it.

A few weeks into the academic year, some schools have temporarily had to move students to virtual learning as COVID-19 cases prevent in-person learning.

The Alabama Education Association is asking local systems to extend paid emergency leave to staff.

“Education employees are working on the frontlines of COVID-19 every day by carrying out the vital job of educating our children,” the group said in a statement to Alabama Daily News. “Education employees have shown their dedication to their employers during this pandemic. Now it is time for employers to show their appreciation to the educators for the great risks they are taking. They are carrying heavy loads and deserve to be protected, not punished, if they are exposed or become ill with COVID-19.”

Last year, the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act reimbursed employers for up to two weeks of paid leave. The provision expired at the end of 2020 and subsequent federal relief packages didn’t mandate leave, but allow for tax credits for employers who give leave through September of this year.

Alabama now ranks fourth in the country for the most new COVID-19 cases per capita, the Associated Press reported Monday.

The AEA said even a temporary extension of paid leave would be helpful to school employees.

Theron Stokes, AEA associate executive director, wrote an Aug. 20 letter to State Superintendent Eric Mackey asking him to encourage school systems to offer the leave.

Theron said some systems have done so, but most have not. Meanwhile, some educators are already out of leave.

“Providing paid leave will ensure in-person instruction is available all year by keeping schools open safely during the pandemic,” AEA said in its statement to ADN.

Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, said his office is beginning to hear about more shortages of teachers and support staff mostly due to being identified as a close contact.  

“A few have temporarily shifted to remote learning because of the extremely low number of substitutes available and I expect we will see more of that over the next few weeks,” Hollingsworth said.

He said schools are doing an excellent job of implementing multiple safety measures to try to protect educators and students. 

“(But) in many parts of Alabama, the school is the only place we see any restrictions in the community,” Hollingsworth said. “This can’t be very effective since we only have students in school for about 7.5 hours each day for five days a week.”

The Alabama State Department of Education doesn’t have a wholistic way to determine how many students or staff are out of school because of quarantines, spokesman Michael Sibley said last week. A COVID dashboard should be available after Labor Day and will provide some information, he said.

Separately, the state this year does not have a statewide virtual option for at-home education.

“Each system received adequate federal funding if they wanted to provide a virtual option for students,” Sibley said.