Memphis school district offers additional sick leave to COVID-positive staff

A masked teacher sits at her desk at a Memphis school.
Shelby County Schools employees who are unable to work after contracting COVID will now receive emergency paid sick leave, the district announced Thursday. (Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal)

Memphis public school employees who are unable to work after contracting COVID will now have up to 10 days of their quarantine period covered by additional paid sick leave, Shelby County Schools announced Thursday. 

That means full-time employees who used sick, vacation, or personal days while recovering from COVID this academic year will have those days restored to their time banks. District officials say the policy will work retroactively for the entire school year from July 1 to June 30, 2022, as part of an effort to ease the many burdens of the pandemic on school staff. 

The initiative also applies to part-time staff members, the district said, but there are several exceptions. Substitute teachers cannot participate in the initiative, the policy can only be used once for 10 consecutive days, and it cannot be used to cover a quarantine period if an employee comes in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID, but does not contract the virus.

The Thursday announcement comes about a year after Tennessee teachers and staff pressed education officials to change their absence policies if an employee tests positive or must quarantine. In November 2020, the Tennessee Education Association sent a letter to Gov. Bill Lee, demanding his administration fund extended educator sick leave for both active cases and quarantines.

Since then, some Tennessee districts have altered policies about employee absences. In August, Metro Nashville Public Schools, the state’s second-largest public school district, adopted a more liberal policy that provides paid sick leave to employees unable to work for any reason related to COVID — as long as they’re vaccinated.

Memphis school staff members aren’t required to be vaccinated to use the initiative.

At a school board meeting last month, Raquel Williams, a teacher and officer with the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, challenged the district to join Nashville in updating its policy.

“Teachers should not be forced to utilize sick days while quarantining,” she said to applause.

To participate in the initiative, employees must submit proof of a positive COVID PCR test to the district’s contact tracing team before the end of their quarantine period. No other tests — such as rapid tests, saliva tests, or blood tests — will be accepted.

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