As school districts across the state finalize plans to return to school in the fall, there are still a number of unanswered questions surrounding how districts plan to operate. MSTA has identified 14 policy modifications we believe will help school districts implement protections and protocols to benefit all students and district staff. The following policy recommendations are in addition to changes in federal law that provide additional paid sick leave and extended protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Districts that choose to follow MSTA’s recommendations, coupled with these federal changes, will provide much needed stability and security for their staff members.
1. Employment of Part-Time and Substitute Staff (GB or 4150) – MSTA suggests removing any policy language that makes it more difficult to find qualified part-time or substitute employees. This includes policy language that prohibits the hiring of recently retired or former employees if the person would be entitled to district-paid health coverage. At a time when finding enough substitute teachers is difficult enough, this language makes it harder to fill these important positions.
2. Nonexempt Employees & Overtime (GBA or 4221) – MSTA suggests removing policy language that discourages or prohibits nonexempt employees from working overtime. As schools struggle to implement increased cleaning/sanitation protocols or virtual learning programs, there could be a need for nonexempt employees to work additional hours and be compensated accordingly. Removing such restrictions will make it easier for districts to do what is necessary to provide the safest environment possible for students and staff.
3. Guaranteeing Extra Duty Compensation (GBAA or 4131) – MSTA suggests adding policy language that protects extra duty contract compensation for all employees regardless of a season or program’s completion. Staff that take on additional duties typically spend a significant amount of time preparing outside the normal season or program timeline and rely on this compensation to supplement their income. Guaranteeing extra duty pay would provide significant security for district staff and reward the work already completed in preparation.
4. Extension of Family and Medical Leave Act Protection (GBBDA or 4321) – MSTA suggests adding policy language that extends the protection of FMLA leave to all employees of the district regardless of their ability to qualify for coverage under the requirements of the statute. This includes offering FMLA protection to employees who have been employed in the district less than 12 months or for less than 1,250 hours during the preceding 12-month period. Providing this additional protection to all employees during a pandemic offers a safety net for employees impacted by COVID-19.
5. Additional Whistleblower Protection (GBCBB or 4865) – MSTA suggests adding additional language to current whistleblower protection language that allows employees to speak with federal, state or local health authorities regarding the operations of the district. The honest sharing of information with public health officials is paramount to accurately tracking and slowing the spread of COVID-19. School staff should be encouraged to do so and should not fear reprisal if they speak to public health officials.
6. Use of Paid Leave During Quarantine (GBCBC, GCBDA, 4320 or 4820) – MSTA suggests adding policy language that clarifies staff will not have paid personal leave docked when they are forced to quarantine by district or public health department policies due to COVID-19 exposure. As employees forced onto the frontlines of COVID-19 exposure, school district staff should not be penalized when they are forced home by exposure that occurs by simply showing up for work.
7. Guidance on Virtual Learning (GBH, 4630, 4640 or 4650) – MSTA suggests specific policy language surrounding the expectations and requirements for interacting with students in a virtual learning environment. As schools choose or are forced to shift to virtual learning environments for larger numbers of students, providing specific guidance on interacting with students in this environment will make it clear for both staff and students what is expected. This language should include language on electronic communication, video conferencing etiquette and guidelines on staff/student interactions.
8. Health Insurance Waiting Periods (GCBC, GDBC or 4540) – MSTA suggests removing policy language that creates waiting periods for new employees’ access to fringe benefits such as health insurance, life insurance or short-term disability plans. As district employees return to school buildings, it is important they have as much health coverage as possible due to increased exposure to COVID-19. Removing barriers to such benefits would ensure new staff members are protected on the first day the begin work in the district.
9. Staff Reassignments and Transfers (GCI, GDI or 4210) – MSTA suggests adding policy language to more easily allow for the reassignment or transfer of school staff who are at higher risk due to age or underlying health conditions or are currently living with someone at higher risk. Federal and state health officials have identified a number of conditions that place individuals at an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. Allowing staff in these high-risk categories to move to positions with a minimal amount of exposure would provide greater protection and allow more staff to continue working during the pandemic.
10. Staff Schedules and Working Hours (GCJ, 4220 or 4221) – MSTA suggests adding policy language to create clear guidelines for staff who are required to provide services before and/or after normal school hours. These services include cleaning/sanitizing classrooms and common spaces, conducting health screenings and providing virtual education to students. Time requirements should be clear for all staff.
11. Staff Evaluations (GCN, GDN, 4610 or 4620) – MSTA suggests adding policy language to clarify the evaluation process for all staff working in a virtual environment. MSTA believes staff evaluations should consider the unprecedented nature of the current environment and should not be used in a punitive matter. The evaluation systems designed for in-person education are not applicable to environments where education is provided either completely or partially online. Policy language regarding the evaluation of staff performing online services would ensure staff and administration are clear on expectations and the evaluation of those expectations.
12. Resignation of Staff (GCPB, GDPB, 4710 or 4711) – MSTA suggests policy language allowing staff to resign for reasons related to COVID-19 without the fear of liquidated damages or legal action. Staff who have underlying health conditions, are caring for family members with underlying health conditions or must care for their children due to school or daycare closure should not have to choose between a financial penalty and the health and safety of themselves or their loved ones. Removal of these penalties will allow staff to make the decisions that are in the best interests of their families.
13. Student Discipline in a Virtual Setting (JG or 2610) – MSTA suggests additional policy language to clarify that students in virtual settings are subject to the same discipline rules and procedures as students in in-person settings. Staff and students should be clear that all rules that apply to in-person learning situations also apply in the virtual setting. The language should also cover any actions and consequences that are unique to the virtual learning environment.
14. Community Use of District Facilities (KG or 1420) – MSTA suggests policy language that makes it clear district facilities will not be available for community use during a pandemic. Federal and state guidance suggests limiting the number of individuals that can enter a building is a key to stopping the spread of COVID-19. Prohibiting community use of district facilities during a declared health emergency limits potential exposure to the virus in district buildings.