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Update: On Wednesday, Jan. 19, the D.C. government announced the rollout of temporary paid COVID-19 leave for its employees, including public school teachers and staff. The paid leave, which expires in early April, allows up to 80 hours for any employee who tests positive for the coronavirus.

As the D.C. government inches closer to implementing paid COVID-19 leave for its employees, teachers union representatives continue to engage D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) officials in dialogue about how the rollout of that benefit would look for public school educators.  

With a Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU)-led rally in the works, teachers have placed paid COVID-19 leave at the top of their list of demands at a time when COVID-19 has forced teachers to burn through several hours of regular and sick leave to care for themselves and sick family members.  

Some teachers, like one who spoke on the condition of anonymity, remain uneasy about what will happen if those who have used all of their personal or sick leave fall ill again or have to nurse a family member back to health.

“If their child gets sick again, It’s not their fault they have to stay home,” said the teacher who asked to be identified as MK. 

“They’re going to run out of leave [and] teachers are prone to have a lot of leave because taking off as a teacher takes a lot. We always have guilt when we take off because we know that our students rely on us and we know there are no substitutes,” MK said.  

Ongoing Discussions about Paid COVID Leave 

Per a memorandum of agreement signed last November, teachers who test positive for COVID-19 won’t lose any personal or sick time if they teach virtually. In recent weeks, however, much of the conversation has focused on teachers and staff members who’ve been incapacitated by the virus. 

MK counted among hundreds of teachers who contracted COVID-19 toward the end of last year. Though they spent much of the winter break recovering, MK recounted needing more time to rest and restart the regiment of medicines that treat their underlying condition. 

Earlier this month, MK’s administrator granted them that wish, albeit questions remain of whether DCPS officials could create systemwide policy that ensures teachers receive compensation while recovering from COVID-19. 

As of Jan. 16, DC Health has recorded more than 5,100 COVID-19 cases in District schools, half of which occurred on public school campuses. 

Since the start of the school year, one out of four COVID-19 cases involved a teacher or staff member. This occurred as staff shortages compelled teachers and administrators to take on other roles and teach colleagues’ students during planning periods. 

Despite outcry among teachers about an unconventional school year, education officials have shown no signs of halting IMPACT teacher evaluations or standardized testing for students. On Jan. 13, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee confirmed that discussions about COVID-19 leave have been ongoing but declined to speak further. 

WTU President Jacqueline Pogue-Lyons said dialogue with the chancellor has focused on ensuring teachers that they have protections. In the last few weeks, teachers, primarily those between the ages of 25 and 34, have reported severe COVID-19 symptoms. 

“Even though teachers are vaccinated and many are getting boosted, some are getting sick when they get a positive COVID result,” Pogue-Lyons said. “We’ve been telling the chancellor that we need more testing and more COVID leave. We may be at the peak of this variant but we don’t know what other variants will come.” 

Difficult Decisions for Teachers 

At the start of the pandemic, the federal government required employers, including school districts, to implement paid COVID-19 leave. By last September, numerous local and state governments across the country had stopped funding COVID-19 leave. 

Those policies have since expired, leaving it up to local and state jurisdictions to put in place similar protections.

School districts currently providing paid COVID-19 leave include Springfield, Ill., Madison, Wisconsin and Maine’s Brewer district. Depending on the jurisdiction, paid COVID-19 leave can fall anywhere between five and 20 days. Proponents of paid COVID-19 leave argue that it prevents teachers and staff members from prematurely returning to work and infecting others. 

DCPS teacher David Ifill echoed those sentiments, saying teachers shouldn’t be forced to choose between their health and financial wellbeing when they contract COVID-19. Teachers who attended a recent town hall meeting hosted by Ifill and other members of D.C. Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators counted COVID-19 leave among one of their more pressing concerns. 

Ifill said teachers, pressured by administrators and district officials to maintain continuity in the school building, often get the short end of the stick when they contract COVID-19. 

“If teachers get COVID, they don’t know how long they’ll end up being sick, whether it’s two  days or two weeks. The sickness doesn’t have a timeline,” Ifill said. 

“COVID leave is supposed to be there as a way for us to mitigate our sickness so that we can come back when we’re strong enough to teach. It’s really a sad state of affairs [when] teachers have to make difficult decisions. Those decisions might affect infection rates and schoolchildren who don’t have the vaccine yet,” he said.

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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