In the first year of the pandemic, certain large employers were federally required to provide paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19. That federal requirement ended last fall in September.
But it may have prompted other employers to think about expanding their paid leave in a global pandemic. For months, Madison Metro School Board board member Nick Vander Meulen has been advocating for more days of COVID-related leave for staff and teachers in Madison schools.
Now, she’s gotten half her wish. Under a compromise policy, the Madison Board of Education has approved an additional five days of sick time and benefits and two extra mental health days for teachers and school staff.
Vander Meulen originally wanted a full ten days of COVID leave for staff.
“The administration made that decision, because we wanted to get it done immediately. And to do more it would have probably taken HR much longer. I’m not positive the exact reasoning, but that was the reasoning I was told, that in order to get it done immediately that this is a temporary fix,” Vander Meulen says.
Michael Jones is the President of Madison Teachers Inc, the union that represents Madison’s teachers. He says that the new COVID days are a good first step, but only a good first step.
“It’s a temporary salve on a much larger, deeper systemic issue that we’ve got to get to the bottom of. I know the district is planning on working with us on this, or figuring out a way we can get a more robust comprehensive plan together that not only accounts for days moving forward, but also for all the days that have been lost since September. This lack of policy has been impacting our staff for quite some time, so we need to get into those kinds of details. I’m confident we can get a policy that we are all proud of that will also encompass not only this entire school year, but will hopefully be a template when future disruptions happen, because COVID isn’t going away any time soon,” Jones says.
MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds says that the five COVID days are just an emergency solution, and that the board will meet at a later date to discuss additional COVID sick leave. While the date of that meeting is not currently set in stone, Vander Muelen says she is working to get the proposal before the board as soon as possible.
Another issue that arose in the meeting was the two mental health days. Board member Cris Carusi says she is worried that, while the days look good on paper, it may be difficult for teachers to take those mental health days due to staffing shortages.
According to data shared at the meeting, coverage from substitute teachers have been down since the beginning of the pandemic, and that coverage has dropped down to only 56.4% of classroom vacancies filled in December.
Deidre Jarecki is a teacher at La Follette High School in Madison. She says that, though she does not have a specific number about how many teachers are out, there has been a noticeable lack of teachers since the beginning of the school year.
“I know there’s a lot of unfilled sub positions and we’re doing our best to cover classes, additional principles and support staff are also trying to cover when teachers are out. We don’t have a full list of the numbers but I know there are a lot of subs out. And that’s been all year, but it’s just been exacerbated with Omicron,” Jarecki says.
But an additional amendment to ensure teachers could use those additional mental health days within the semester failed. Here’s Vander Meulen, who supported the amendment brought forth by fellow board member Cris Carusi.
“It’s not that our principals are not wanting our principals to take mental health days, they are, they’re doing their best. But when you have 50-60% of sub positions unfilled, often you can’t afford to lose that person for a day. Yes, we would like our staff to take mental health days, but if you can’t afford to lose them because you can’t let the teacher go because you’re short staffed, then are we really giving this as a benefit, or are we just saying it’s there but it’s not really usable for most of our employees. And that’s not what we want,” Vander Meulen says.
The amendment was voted down by the full board.
Jarecki says that since coming back from the extended winter break, the school has been much more strict about the COVID policy, and that she is happy to see the district taking steps towards safety. She says that, after her daughter caught COVID last year, she had to use personal sick days to look after her child.
“I think I was really relieved to see the COVID sick leave, like I said I think it’s a really good start. I see the district is trying. It brought me a lot of relief, and I’ve been teaching for 12 years but it’s only my third year in the district so I don’t have that much sick pay accrued, and that was starting to weigh on me. So it was a big relief to see that come through. And I also saw that they put 2 mental health days in there as well, and that’s another relief and much needed,” Jarecki says.
The additional sick leave will be available for teachers to use by the end of the week.
Photo courtesy: Madison School District