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COVID-19 is not over — but a federal act that once provided teachers with extra paid sick leave has now come to an end. 

Cave Creek Unified School District (CCUSD) announced it is discontinuing additional sick leave benefits for employees after the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) expired on Dec. 31.

The federal government enacted this mandate last spring to provide teachers up to 80 hours of additional paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19. Its effective date was April 1.

The discontinuation of this benefit means CCUSD’s teachers now must use their own sick hours if they choose to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19.

The district explained its reasoning for ending this benefit in an email sent to CCUSD employees.

“This unfunded mandate, along with declining student enrollment, placed a financial strain on the district’s already precarious financial position,” it stated. 

The district spent $137,123 on “FFCRA-related leave payments” from July 1 through Dec. 31, according to information sent to employees, which was provided by Julia Scotto, CCUSD Superintendent Dr. Cort Monroe’s executive assistant. 

Before this policy change, teachers and students were instructed to follow Maricopa County Department of Health guidelines and quarantine for 10 days if they were exposed to COVID-19.

However, “With the recent adjustment that has been made, staff now have a choice, as they monitor their own health, to decide what they want to do to keep themselves healthy,” the district’s information stated.

As long as teachers are symptom free, they are permitted to continue working if they have been exposed to COVID-19, it stated. Teachers are still provided with the option of quarantine, but they must use their own personal sick time.

The district, however, mentioned, “We are excited that our staff began to receive the COVID-19 vaccine two weeks ago.”

CCUSD has approximately 5,400 students and 900 staff members, 300 of which are certified teachers. As of now, “only .7% of our total staff and in-person students are actively positive with COVID-19 and we continue to enforce our mitigation plan,” the district stated.

The district implemented a set of policies for its staff and students to follow to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

These mitigation strategies include measures like encouraging social distancing when “feasible,” requiring students and teachers to wear masks, as well as providing classrooms and restrooms with additional sanitation throughout the day, according to CCUSD’s 2020-2021 School Year Plan Logistics.

The district also encourages parents to check students for symptoms before school.

CCUSD parent Kathryn Reeve said she thinks the district is doing “everything they can” to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and keep students healthy and in school; however, the news of this policy change and its effect on teachers is “heartbreaking.”

Reeve is the mother of a kindergartener and a preschooler who attend CCUSD schools. She and her children prefer in-person learning because virtual learning was difficult due to her children’s young age, she explained.  

“I love our teachers. I love our staff,” she said. They are “the reason I am comfortable with my children in-person learning with numbers surging the way they are in Maricopa County.”

“It’s so disappointing that we aren’t falling over ourselves to do whatever we can to support them, to make sure they’re safe, to make sure that they have an easy way to mitigate spread if they’re exposed.”

While Reeve has been notified of students in other classrooms being asked to quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure, she and her children have not been affected or asked to quarantine, she said.

This policy change is concerning, Reeve said, because it raises the potential for teachers to unknowingly spread COVID-19 through the classroom if they choose to continue instruction despite being exposed.

She wants her children to continue attending in-person classes, “but at the end of the day, we’ve got to be safe,” she said. 

“We’ve got to realize we’re all living through a global pandemic,” she said. “This isn’t just a rough week — this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Reeve said she hopes the district will allow teachers and staff who have been exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine safely for the recommended number of days without having to use their own personal sick time, she said. 

“If we are so committed to keeping schools open, then we need to support the people who are making that happen,” she said. 

However, Reeve said she has “a lot of empathy” for the district and leadership and the difficult situation they are trying to navigate. 

The district provided specific details on its financial situation and explained why it is not feasible to continue to provide additional sick leave benefits to teachers exposed to COVID-19.

CCUSD is in a “structural deficit” because 95% of its capital outlay budget capacity is in the maintenance and operations budget, the district stated, mentioning how it has informed the governing board of this for years. 

The district’s budget also took a blow from an approximately 8% decline in student enrollment, it stated, adding that the district is down approximately 400 students.

Its budget capacity was also reduced by 5% due to students opting for online learning. 

Unless the federal government provides relief to fund and extend the FFCRA benefit, the continuation of this sick leave policy will exacerbate the district’s financial distress, it stated.

However, all things considered, the district stated it “values all students and staff and plans for long-term student success and staff retention.”

 

—Staff writer Sarah Donahue

can be reached at

sdonahue@timespublications.com