In reversal, Houston ISD drafting policy to extend COVID paid leave benefits

Houston ISD officials appear poised to extend paid leave to staff members who quarantine or isolate due to COVID-19 in the second semester, a reversal from their initial stance on the contentious employment issue.

In a five-sentence message sent to staff members, HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said district leaders are drafting a policy that would extend benefits offered through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, or FFCRA, which is set to expire Thursday. The federal legislation mandated that certain employers, including school districts, must provide 10 days of paid sick leave to staff who tested positive for COVID-19 or displayed symptoms linked to the virus.

Lathan’s statement came days after her administration declared employees must use their regular paid leave — typically 10 to 12 days per school year — if they cannot report to work for “reasons not specifically related to workplace exposure to the coronavirus.”

Some staff members and parents criticized the move, arguing employees often do not know whether they were exposed on-campus and voicing concern that infected workers might stay on-the-job for financial reasons.

In her subsequent message to staff, Lathan said administrators have received “valuable input” ahead of the FFCRA’s expiration. HISD officials have not released any proposed language, though Lathan said in January she plans to offer a policy to HISD trustees.

“We will continue to review and seek feedback through appropriate avenues before any final decision is made,” Lathan said.

Board members are scheduled to meet Jan. 7 for an agenda review and Jan. 14 for a regular meeting, where they typically vote on policy changes.

School leaders across the country are juggling choices about public health with staffing and human resources challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The FFCRA removed decisions about paid leave from their agenda for the first half of 2020-21, but members of Congress have not included similar provisions in recently passed legislation, including the $900 billion stimulus package signed Sunday by President Donald Trump.

Anticipaing that federal officials would not extend the FFCRA benefits, several Houston-area districts voted earlier this month to continue offering 10 days of COVID-related paid leave to employees for the rest of the school year. They included Cy-Fair, Fort Bend, Pasadena and Montgomery ISDs.

“Anything we can do to give our employees peace of mind, to put one less thing (on) their plate that they have to worry about, that’s available for us to do it, we’re going to give it consideration,” Montgomery ISD Chief Financial Officer Kris Lynn said.

The paid leave issue arose in HISD in mid-December, when a purported district-issued policy leaked on social media. The language suggested employees would need to use their regular leave time if their COVID-related absence was not tied to at-work exposure.

In a subsequent statement to media, HISD administrators said it was “unfortunate that incomplete information was publicly shared.” However, the statement also reiterated parts of the leaked language and did not refute other parts of the purported policy.

Wretha Thomas, president of the 1,000-member Houston Educational Support Personnel union, said she feared lower-paid employees would dismiss COVID safety protocols if forced to use regular paid leave amid the pandemic. Thomas said she hopes to address the topic with Lathan’s administration during a planned Jan. 7 meeting.

“We’ll be pushing it and we’ll be talking to the board members, asking them to support it,” Thomas said. “They need to put those 10 days in there.”

About 600 of HISD’s 27,200 staff members have reported positive COVID-19 test results since early September, according to district data. It is unclear how many have quarantined or isolated.

The cost of HISD extending the benefits is not immediately known, though it could approach $1 million.

In Fort Bend ISD, which is roughly one-third the size of HISD, administrators estimated a $250,000 price tag for continuing to offer COVID paid leave. In Pasadena ISD, which reports about one-fourth of HISD’s enrollment, districts leaders said they spent about $500,000 on COVID paid leave between April and early December.

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