Schools review policies on additional paid time off

School district employees are less likely to receive additional paid time off for the 2021-22 school year in response to the covid-19 pandemic, administrators say.

“Last year teachers and students faced uncertainty as covid-19 spread across our country and our schools,” said Leslee Wright, communications director for Bentonville.

Many districts have granted limited paid time off in addition to the traditional time off accumulated last year to staff who had to self-isolate or quarantine and could not perform their tasks remotely due to covid-19 protocols, said administrators.

Districts funded the leave with a combination of money for operations and state and federal government funding for coronavirus aid, relief and economic security, administrators said.

“The same sick leave protections will not be available to staff this coming year,” Wright said of Bentonville. “Staff members who are fully vaccinated will not be required to self-quarantine if exposed to the covid-19 virus.”

Fort Smith, Rogers and Springdale are also reverting to traditional leave policies, administrators said.

Fayetteville is reviewing policies for the 2021-22 school year and will have recommendations soon, said Greg Mones, director of human resources.

“I think our current policy of sick leave in the district is generous,” said Kim Forester, principal of Osage Creek Elementary School in Bentonville, adding that she was vaccinated at a district clinic in January.

Easy access to the covid-19 vaccine and fewer people falling ill with the virus allow districts in the region to work towards more traditional operations for the next school year, administrators said.

“Our goal is to enjoy a traditional school year characterized by face-to-face instruction, music concerts and sporting events,” Wright said. “To do this, we need our students and staff, who are capable of it, to get vaccinated against covid-19. “

Of the staff in the Bentonville school district, 75% are vaccinated. Fayetteville has 94% of staff vaccinated and Rogers has 80% of staff vaccinated, administrators said. Fort Smith does not track the number of employees vaccinated at this time, said Christina Williams, public information coordinator.

Springdale District General Counsel Kendra Clay said about 1,900 staff have been vaccinated at clinics run by the district. Another 400 had been vaccinated by outside entities as of April 1, she said. The district has around 3,000 employees.

Given the turnover that occurs each year, it is not clear whether the staff who were vaccinated last school year are the same employees who return next school year, Clay said.

Ashley Siwiec, communications director for the Rogers District, said officials hope the need for staff quarantine will be minimal given the widespread availability of the vaccine.

The school districts of Bentonville, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Rogers and Springdale employ about 11,000 people combined, according to administrators.

Districts have experienced pandemic-related absences to varying degrees over the past year, administrators said.

Springdale, the state’s largest district, had 3,745 days off work related to the pandemic.

“It is difficult to calculate the total financial impact of covid-19 illnesses and quarantines this past school year,” said Mones of the Fayetteville District.

Districts will continue to monitor vaccination rates and the number of positive cases in the region for subsequent decision making in support of staff for the 2021-22 school year, administrators said. Guidance from the Arkansas Department of Health, the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will inform future decisions.

Instructor Sarah Tucker gives a class to students on Monday, June 21, 2021 at Osage Creek Elementary School in Bentonville. Districts can ask teachers to rely on sick leave accumulated for staff absences and quarantines with easy access to a vaccine. Check out nwaonline.com/210622Daily/ for today’s photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette / Charlie Kaijo)

Instructor Ashlee Lunsford (second from left) assists Gloria Decker, 6, with a stretch also shown with Dafnne Amador, 6 (right), on Monday, June 21, 2021 at Osage Creek Elementary School in Bentonville .  Districts can ask teachers to rely on sick leave accumulated for staff absences and quarantines with easy access to a vaccine.  Check out nwaonline.com/210622Daily/ for today's photo gallery.  (NWA Democrat-Gazette / Charlie Kaijo)

Instructor Ashlee Lunsford (second from left) assists Gloria Decker, 6, with a stretch also shown with Dafnne Amador, 6 (right), on Monday, June 21, 2021 at Osage Creek Elementary School in Bentonville . Districts can ask teachers to rely on sick leave accumulated for staff absences and quarantines with easy access to a vaccine. Check out nwaonline.com/210622Daily/ for today’s photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette / Charlie Kaijo)

Instructor Ashlee Lunsford watches the children play a game on Monday, June 21, 2021 at Osage Creek Elementary School in Bentonville.  Districts can ask teachers to rely on sick leave accumulated for staff absences and quarantines with easy access to a vaccine.  Check out nwaonline.com/210622Daily/ for today's photo gallery.  (NWA Democrat-Gazette / Charlie Kaijo)

Instructor Ashlee Lunsford watches the children play a game on Monday, June 21, 2021 at Osage Creek Elementary School in Bentonville. Districts can ask teachers to rely on sick leave accumulated for staff absences and quarantines with easy access to a vaccine. Check out nwaonline.com/210622Daily/ for today’s photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette / Charlie Kaijo)

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