As COVID surges, most Alabama teachers must use own sick leave to quarantine

ASSOCIATED PRESS

As cases of COVID continue to climb statewide, many Alabama teachers are finding out they must burn their own sick leave if they get sent home from school to quarantine.

That’s a change from last school year, when teachers could get up to two weeks of paid leave through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

That leave expired at the end of 2020, but school boards were given the option to extend that leave

Through March, which some did. Then, beginning in April, through the American Rescue Plan, boards could access a new round of 10 federal sick leave days and up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for teachers who needed it. That provision expires Sept. 30.

But it appears few chose to do so, leaving teachers asked to quarantine with few options as COVID cases continue to surge statewide due to the Delta variant. The state currently is adding thousands of cases and several deaths each day.

The Alabama Education Association found only 39 of the 138 school boards in Alabama chose to pick up the extra days, meaning teachers are using their own sick days if they’re sent home from school.

Some teachers who are quarantined but not sick may get allowances from their district or principal to teach virtually from home. But the Alabama Education Association is pushing for more school boards to offer the additional 10 days.

The organization sent a letter to state Superintendent Eric Mackey recently, asking him to encourage school officials to pick up those extra days and help school employees get through the current surge of COVID cases statewide.

“I would urge you to encourage all school systems to consider extending FF- CRA leave through the end of September,” AEA As- sociate Executive Director Theron Stokes wrote in the Aug. 20 letter. “The numbers show that COVID-19 is only getting worse.”

Stokes wrote that one school board voted as recently as early August to ex- tend the leave and that it’s not too late for others to do so. Several school districts have scheduled meetings this week to consider adding leave, according to the AEA.

Mackey told AL.com that when extended leave first became available in March, most local boards chose not to participate.

Part of the reason is because people who are vaccinated are not considered close contacts,” he said. “And there was a strong push to get more people vaccinated.”

“So the assumption was that you would not need the COVID leave if you were vaccinated,” he said.

But the state is seeing breakthrough cases among vaccinated people, in part because community spread is so widespread in Alabama. Vaccination remains effective at preventing serious disease and death, but adults and children still can test positive after being vaccinated. If a vaccinated teacher shows symptoms or tests positive, they will be sent home.

There is no publicly available information on the number or percentage of school employees that are vaccinated. Statewide, 45% of all adults have been fully inoculated, but that rate varies from a low of 19% in Russell County up to 41% in both Lowndes and Madi- son counties.

An AEA spokesperson said the organization will continue to push for more boards to offer additional sick days. In a statement to AL.com, AEA wrote:

“Education employees are working on the front- lines of COVID-19 every day by carrying out the vital job of educating our children. 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 be- come ill with COVID-19.”