The Grand Forks teachers union is throwing its voice behind a call for school districts to provide federally funded paid leave for teachers and staff who miss work due to COVID-19.

It comes after North Dakota United, which represents the state’s largest professional association of public educators and employees, last week called on school districts to use federal COVID relief funds to provide paid leave for K-12 school teachers and staff who are sick with COVID or are a close contact.

For the majority of North Dakota teachers this year, if they become infected with the virus or are identified as a close contact, they need to use their annual paid days off, such as sick days, vacation days or bereavement, or take the time off without pay to isolate.

The Grand Forks Education Association “agrees with NDU President (Nick) Archuleta’s call to districts to use some ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds for COVID leave for staff,” said GFEA President Melissa Buchhop, a teacher at Century Elementary School.

In the Grand Forks school system, employees who contract COVID-19 can use any type of leave time, except bereavement leave, if they are affected by the virus, according to Tracy Jentz, communications and community outreach coordinator.

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“The majority of employees affected have been able to work remotely and haven’t needed to utilize leave accruals,” Jentz said. “The school system utilizes this approach in order to save employee leave accruals.”

Jentz later told the Herald the district does not plan to pursue using ESSER funds for paid COVID leave.

Archuleta said teachers and staff should not have to use their sick or vacation days if they become infected with COVID-19, and school districts should “step up” and support their teachers. His organization is urging districts to use some ESSER funds to provide this paid leave, he said in a release that was distributed last week to the media.

“Teachers are going into work and they’re working with students who are by and large unvaccinated. (Paid COVID-19 leave) will certainly add a great deal to their peace of mind,” Archuleta said.

In Grand Forks, certified employees -- including teachers, social workers, counselors, school psychologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and audiologists -- have two days of emergency leave available upon request. They also have personal leave, which varies from two to six days each school year, depending on length of service and use, Jentz said. Certified employees have sick leave ranging from 20 to 65 days available to them, depending on their length of service, she said.

In data recorded for Sept. 27-Oct. 1, among students and certified staff in Grand Forks Public Schools, there were 36 COVID positive cases and 136 close contacts, according to the district’s website. Positive COVID cases increased by 50% and the number of close contacts rose from 77 since the week of Sept. 13.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a person isolate for 10 days after symptoms first appear.

When the COVID public health emergency was declared in March 2020, “workers were granted leave time from their jobs, paid for by the federal government,” Archuleta said. “This was the right thing to do, then and now, as it allows workers to quarantine when they get a positive test or when a family member has had to stay home because they are sick or were a close contact.”

During the 2020-21 school year, districts had paid COVID-19 leave in place for educators, funded by federal stimulus funds specifically for teacher leave, Archuleta said. However, those funds are gone this year, and now it’s up to school districts to create paid COVID-19 leave for their staff, he said.

The decision to not offer paid COVID-19 relief this school year for teachers comes as the highly contagious delta variant is driving up North Dakota’s coronavirus case count, hospitalizations and deaths.

Archuleta said his organization is “asking every district in the state to hold our educators harmless and to use ESSER dollars to provide this relief.” School districts that have submitted plans to the state for approval, for how ESSER dollars are spent, “should know that those plans can be changed,” he said.

The goal behind all pandemic safety measures, Archuleta said, is to keep schools open and ensure students can continue with in-person learning. No one wants this more than teachers, he added.

“If we have learned anything during this pandemic, it is that teachers will do everything in their power to continue to teach their students in person,” Archuleta said. “To that end, teachers have done everything right to mitigate the effects of this insidious virus. Despite their best efforts, and because they work in environments where students are not vaccinated, teachers are at risk of contracting the delta variant of the coronavirus. When this happens, our teachers need paid COVID leave, just as they did last year as the pandemic raged. It is clear that school districts should step up and utilize some of the largess sent from Washington in support of their teachers.”

In the 2020-21 school year, the Grand Forks school system extended the Families First Coronavirus Response Act COVID-19 leave through March 2021, three months past the federal sunset on Dec. 31, 2020, Jentz said.

All employees were able to receive immunizations through the district’s partnership with Grand Forks Public Health beginning in March 2020. Those who received Pfizer immunizations were able to receive a booster shot six months after receiving their second dose, Jentz said.