BISMARCK — North Dakota's largest union for public school teachers is calling on school districts statewide to implement paid leave for K-12 teachers and staff who contract COVID-19 — something that was available to teachers last year.

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

For the majority of North Dakota teachers this school 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a person isolate for 10 days after symptoms first appear.

"Frankly, this is nothing new," said Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, the union urging districts to implement paid COVID-19 leave. "It's more important than ever that if we want to keep our schools open, we have to have a healthy teaching corps. ... They should not be penalized if they've come down with COVID because they were just doing their job."

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

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North Dakota United suggests school districts use some of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to provide paid leave. ESSER funds were granted by the federal government to assist school districts with pandemic relief measures.

Some North Dakota school districts received millions of dollars in the latest ESSER funding allocation, such as the state's largest school district, Bismarck Public Schools, which was granted $21.4 million.

"There's nothing that would prohibit districts from spending part of that on COVID leave for their teachers," Archuleta 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.

Bismarck Public Schools and Fargo Public Schools, two of the largest school districts in North Dakota, currently do not offer paid COVID-19 leave for teachers and are not considering doing so, spokespeople for both districts told The Forum on Tuesday, Oct. 5.

Administrators have not heard many concerns from teachers about the lack of paid COVID-19 leave in Bismarck Public Schools, said spokesperson Steve Koontz. Teachers begin each school year with 12 sick days, and unused sick days accrue each year, he said.

As of Thursday. Sept. 20, the Bismarck Public School District had 42 staff members positive with COVID-19, according to its COVID-19 dashboard.

Similar to Bismarck, Fargo Public Schools teachers receive 12 sick days each year, which also accrue. Teachers who become infected with COVID-19 can work with human resources to use the various kinds of leave at their disposal, such as sick days, emergency leave and bereavement, for COVID-19 isolation, said AnnMarie Campbell, spokesperson for Fargo Public Schools.

As of Friday, Oct. 1, nine staff members were "out" due to a positive test, according to the Fargo Public Schools' weekly data report.

Teachers in Moorhead Area Public Schools will use the leave spelled out in their teaching contracts if they are required to isolate or quarantine, said Kristin Dehmer, Moorhead's executive director of human resources and operations, in a statement.

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.

"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.