SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - With the new school year just weeks away for Suncoast School Districts, many parents, students and teachers still have questions about how things will work during the pandemic. One of the biggest questions for staff is what will happen if a teacher gets COVID-19 during the school year?
“We shouldn’t have to risk our lives to come back to work,” Pat Barber, President of the Manatee Education Association, expressed.
Suncoast School Districts say they’re trying to make the classrooms as safe as possible this school year. If a teacher, staff member or student contracts COVID-19, that person will be sent home to quarantine, and all those they came in contact with will be notified - following HIPAA regulations.
Students will be marked absent, but what does that mean for paid time off and employees?
“There’s so many changes every day, and I think that’s the problem. People aren’t sure. After the first time you get sick and are home quarantining, you may have to use your own days the second time,” explained Pat Gardner, the President of the Sarasota Classified Teachers Association.
There is federal leave for employees who contract COVID-19, but it does have a limit – only two weeks of paid leave.
“Plus, unfortunately, there was not as many positions for high-risk people as we would have liked to see, so some of our high-risk teachers will be back in the classroom. We’ve had people who have decided to retire rather than to go back, and we’ve had people who have decided to quit rather than go back,” explained Barber.
As of right now, Florida does not cover teachers under workers compensation. The Florida Education Association has petitioned the state to extend coverage under workers comp to include teachers, but unless that happens, teachers will have to use their own sick leave. School board members on the Suncoast say they’re fighting to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“That’s why it’s important for us to have our own tracking system and work in partnership with the health department because the last thing I want to see for our employees is through no fault of their own. In my opinion as an epidemiologist, if someone contract an illness in the workplace, that is a workplace injury to that employee. They should not have to utilize their sick time, or if they don’t have sick time, to be out on unpaid leave,” explained Dr. Scott Hopes, epidemiologist and Manatee County School Board member.
Plus, they’ve also seen a big decrease in substitute teachers who have signed up for this school year.
“It’s just natural that they’re scared to death. They’re frustrated. They’re scared. They just don’t want to get sick. “I’ve been asking what they’re going to do when there’s not enough staff in the schools. When are they going to decide to close the schools? They just don’t have an answer. Everything is just so unknown,” Gardner said.
Schools in Manatee County are scheduled to start on August 17, and schools in Sarasota County will start on August 31.