Franklin schools not extending paid COVID-19 leave

Published 5:26 pm Wednesday, January 27, 2021

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Franklin City Public Schools won’t be offering another 12 weeks of paid COVID-19 leave in 2021 now that it is no longer required by law to do so.

Per the Federal First Coronavirus Response Act, which Congress signed into law March 18, 2020, employers — public and private — were required to provide up to two weeks of fully-paid leave to employees quarantined due to COVID-19 symptoms or exposure, or two weeks of partially paid leave at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay for those unable to work due to having to care for someone with COVID-19 or a child under age 18 whose school or child care provider was closed due to the pandemic.

Those with children out of school or daycare could qualify for an additional 10 weeks of leave at two-thirds pay. A total of seven FCPS employees utilized this leave in 2020, five of which had used up their 12 weeks by Dec. 31, when the provisions of the Act expired.

According to a presentation assistant superintendents Jeff Ryder and Dr. Natalie Halloran gave to Franklin’s School Board Jan. 21, four of these employees are now back at work, one has resigned and two have been using their regular sick days since Nov. 23 and Dec. 31, respectively.

According to division spokeswoman Cleo-Symone Scott, FCPS received no additional federal funds to pay the required FFCRA leave in 2020. Per Halloran’s presentation, the leave taken by the seven employees cost the division a total of $21,811.75.

Were the school division to voluntarily offer another 12 weeks through March 31, only the two employees who didn’t use up their 12 weeks by Dec. 31 would be eligible: one who took two weeks off from Sept. 1-15 and is now working in an academic area and another who used six weeks spanning Nov. 17 through Dec. 31 and is currently on regular paid leave. The additional cost to pay out the remainder of the 12 weeks to these two employees would be about $6,500.

But “the big unknown in this idea” is how many employees who didn’t request any portion of the 12 weeks leave in 2020 would choose to do so in 2021 were it offered, Ryder said.

“Due to the unknown level of financial liability this action may pose to the division, we do not recommend extending the federal program benefits of the expired FFCRA,” Halloran said.

If and when the two employees using their regular sick days run out of paid time off, they will likely need to take an unpaid absence if they wish to continue their leave. Per the FCPS handbook, full-time salaried employees receive 12-18 paid vacation days each school year based on years of service, and one paid sick day per month worked is available to all employees covered by the Virginia Retirement Service.

“Most of them it was because of daycare, if the daycare is not open or their school is closed and they have to be home to help with virtual teaching and learning,” Halloran said of the seven who utilized their COVID-19 leave in 2020.

At a Jan. 14 work session, the School Board had voted unanimously the day of that work session to keep instruction virtual for all grade levels during the third nine weeks of the 2020-2021 school year, acting on the advice of Superintendent Dr. Tamara Sterling.

But the board didn’t take a formal vote on the COVID-19 leave issue following Halloran’s Jan. 21 presentation. Instead, after a brief question and answer period, the board moved on to its next agenda item for that evening: planning a budget for the 2021-2022 school year.

Asked why the board had not voted on Halloran’s recommendation, Vice Chairman Bob Holt deferred to Chairwoman Amy Phillips, who deferred to Sterling. The superintendent did not respond by press deadline Tuesday.

Private businesses that choose to voluntarily extend the expired FFCRA leave options into 2021 can write off the cost of doing so from the income tax they would ordinarily pay, but this option isn’t available to federal, state or local government employers such as public school systems.

As such, continuing to offer the FFCRA leave options through March 31 would be a non-budgeted expense, Ryder said.

The school division was also notified in December that it would receive an additional $2.5 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, but “these funds will not be received until after the division spends the money for authorized uses and then requests reimbursement” and “none of the CARES Act funding grants allow payment for employees to be at home,” Scott said.