COVID-19: What we know about funding, privacy, leaves and the unknowns
Let me make something as clear as possible: opening schools in the midst of a raging pandemic is a very bad idea.
It is bad for the safety of the employees, and it is bad for the safety of the students and their families.
The obvious question: why is our district doing it?
The answer: all districts in Florida are being coerced into reopening by the Florida Department of Education. The state has told the local districts that if they do not open all their schools in traditional brick-and-mortar fashion, the state will withhold anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 per student in FTE dollars. If that were to happen, Sarasota could lose in excess of $80,000,000 in revenues this year.
Is that fair? Of course not. Our district losing all that money would cause massive layoffs and pay cuts. Might the district ultimately prevail in a court of law? Perhaps, but is that a risk worth taking? What would happen in the meantime as the matter is adjudicated in the courts, which could drag on for years?
Make no mistake about it, districts are being forced against their will to reopen in the face of a dangerous situation. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties are in a different situation, as they are still on Phase 1 of reopening and are given special treatment under the Florida Department of Education’s emergency order. Can Sarasota open in full remote fashion? Perhaps, but the possible negative consequences could be disastrous. It is all a huge uncertainty and bizarre game of chicken.
The proposed reopening will not go smoothly. There will not be enough employees. There will not be enough teachers, aides, custodians or bus drivers to make this district work as planned. There are grave concerns about the number of substitutes available. Classrooms, and even whole schools, will open and shut repeatedly, as the virus spreads from person to person. I have been told that in a meeting with health professionals from Sarasota Memorial Hospital, the district’s administration was warned that opening in the face of these numbers is not a good idea. Our state Department of Education simply doesn’t care.
Let me make our position clear: The School Board should use all of the days between now and Aug. 31 (the adjusted first day of student attendance) to make an informed, science-guided decision that is based on the health and educational needs of our students and staff. The medical situation on the ground will be changing, either for the better or for the worse. Our district needs to have the most up-to-date information and follow the guidance of our local medical community.
If that puts us at odds with the state, so be it. We are a school system; we must always consider safety before all other concerns. If, at that point, the state wants to challenge our decision, let them take our district on for caring about our community’s safety and well-being.
Privacy in Classroom Issues
We have made much progress on this subject in the last few weeks. There will be cameras in most, if not all, classrooms this fall. We hope to have a final agreement for all of you to see in the next few days.
While many teachers feel they have a right to privacy while in the classroom, our lawyers found no legal basis for that. That said, the teacher will be in full charge of the learning environment, will control who is looking in, and can mute anyone at any time. Parents will be told they cannot interact with the teacher during the lesson, and that taping is not permitted. Violations of these policies could lead to loss of remote learning privileges.
Scores of staff members are interested in riding out the COVID-19 crisis from the safety of their homes. For those employees, here is a quick primer:
· Employees do not accrue seniority while on leave. Their seniority is frozen during the time of leave.
· Employees returning from a Leave of Absence will return to the same or similar job at their former worksite.
· Employees returning prematurely from a Leave of Absence will be placed into a vacancy in their certification area, and will return to their former school at the end of the school year.
Personal leave can be taken for any reason, and is for one year’s duration. Its usual deadline is March 1. That deadline has been pushed back three times. We will be asking that it be pushed back again until after the Board’s Aug. 4 meeting, but we can’t guarantee that will be granted.
If the COVID-19 crisis ends before the school year’s end, you could ask to return to duty prematurely if a vacancy exists in your area of certification. You may only take one personal leave in a three-year period. You do not receive salary or benefits while on a personal leave.
FMLA/medical leave can be taken at any time for the treatment of a medical condition of either yourself or a family member. There is no deadline for applying for a medical Leave of Absence. It requires that a doctor sign off on either your own or family member’s condition.
Being age 65+ or, having a fear of catching COVID-19, are generally not considered medical conditions under the FMLA law. This leave is more flexible and is generally the better leave for those employees who qualify. Employees on medical leave will utilize their accumulated sick leave. If they are on approved FMLA leave, they are guaranteed at least 12 weeks of paid medical benefits.
The Family First Coronavirus Response Act provides for special federal benefits due to the current COVID-19 crisis. Employees will be covered with this leave for 10 paid days, if they are serving a mandatory quarantine. An employee can only access this benefit once.
Should your child(ren) be home due to COVID-19 or due to the childcare facility being closed due to a public health emergency, you may qualify for a 12-week period under this act with partial pay. Check with the district to get more information on this special federal leave.
It is still unknown whether or not worker’s compensation will apply to COVID-19 cases. Employers are generally fighting that determination, and that issue will be ultimately decided in a worker’s compensation court.
What happens when you are out for more than one quarantine? At this point, it is the district’s position that you would have to use your own accumulated sick days. That position is not acceptable to us, and it’s one of the things we’d like to negotiate when the new superintendent starts on Aug. 10.
I know this is a very difficult time for everyone, and for good reason. As I have said from the beginning, it is our responsibility to make sure the district is adhering to all guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Make sure you contact us immediately if you are subject to any condition that you believe is unsafe. Teachers should feel free to mark off at least a six-foot area around their desk as a no-go zone so as to maintain safe social distancing.
Don’t let down your guard. Stay safe at all times.