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Teachers Grapple with COVID-19 Sick Leave


One morning, Berkeley High School (BHS) teacher and career advisor James Dopman woke up with a sniffle. In a normal year, he would have shrugged this off. After all, he felt relatively fine and had a history of allergies. He would have simply gone to school and worked through the discomfort. 

However, this was no normal year, and even the slightest hint of sickness meant that he had to stay home and self-isolate. Not to mention, he had received a close contact letter, meaning that he may have been exposed to COVID-19. 

“I had to use a sick day while my [COVID-19] test came back and it came back negative the following day,” Dopman said. “From that day, I am down one sick day.” 

A contracted teacher working for the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) receives an annual total of 11 sick days that they can use for a number of instances throughout the school year. Those that go unused will accrue from subsequent years. Teachers also have the opportunity to donate some of their sick days to their colleagues. Once a teacher runs out of sick days, they stop getting paid when on sick leave. 

In efforts to address COVID-19, BUSD tweaked the policies regarding sick days for the 2021-22 school year. 

A symptomatic teacher, regardless of their vaccination status, is required to quarantine for a minimum of 24 hours until their symptoms resolve, according to BUSD Human Resources Assistant Superintendent Samantha Tobias-Espinosa. If unvaccinated and symptomatic of COVID-19, Espinosa said, teachers are required to quarantine for eight days but can return to school after five days if they test negative.

COVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave, opened in the state of California starting January 2021 and covered employees “who must quarantine, isolate, or have a negative reaction to a vaccine without detracting from their sick leave,” according to Espinosa. For a teacher to qualify, a health official had to verify that the teacher was required to quarantine or isolate. California’s COVID-19 leave expired on September 30, 2021.

Chemistry and Fire Science teacher Jamie Robertson tested positive for COVID-19 after an exposure at school a couple months after COVID-19 leave was terminated, in November 2021. Robertson had to self-isolate at home for a total of eight sick days.

“Earlier in the year, the state was providing funding for ‘COVID leave’ for symptomatic teachers to stay home, but they stopped doing that in September,” Robertson said in an email to the Jacket. “It seems like they have decided that a few more [COVID-19] cases among students and teachers is a price they are willing to pay (since they aren’t actually the ones paying it).” 

Robertson mentioned that the existing BUSD COVID-19 policies do not specify testing guidelines for teachers who have already contracted the virus during the 90 days after they would have tested positive for it. He explained that staff are told to isolate if symptomatic and to receive a negative test before returning to school; however, they are also told that they cannot be tested until 90 days after having caught the virus without getting positive results. This provokes the question of whether these teachers would have to quarantine using their sick days after receiving a possibly false positive test in the window of 90 days having actually tested positive. Robertson said he has reached out to the district health office about this but has yet to hear back.

Of the 11 sick days allotted to teachers each year, three kinds of sick leave are recommended for use. A majority of those days are suggested to be used for personal necessity leave if needed. Personal necessity leave accounts for occasions such as attending a professional conference, meeting with a lawyer, and observing a religious holiday. Personal leave, or ‘no-tell’ leave constitutes around four of the 11 days and can be considered as a mental health day. Three to four days are suggested to be used for literal sick days.

Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA) English teacher John Becker was involved in outlining sick leave for BUSD teachers while he was the vice president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) from 2013 to 2017. He explained that if a teacher is suspected of abusing their sick leave privilege, the district is allowed to request a doctor’s note.

“If you’re claiming sick leave to be out for a whole week,” Becker said, “you better be sick enough that you’re going to the doctor. If you’re not, like, get your *ss to school.”

A teacher is not off the hook when they are on sick leave. Many teachers still work from home and communicate with staff and students virtually. While on leave, a teacher is expected to provide lesson plans for a substitute teacher and get materials for lessons to their classroom.

He explained that the “basic economics” of sick leave equates the annual number of sick days afforded to a teacher to an amount of money that is redirected to a substitute teacher’s paycheck.

Lately, Becker received multiple emails from the main office, asking teachers to cover classes for different teachers who are out. The emails have indicated a lack of substitutes almost every day, with Becker saying, “some days it’s one person, some days it’s 10.”

Robertson noticed this as well, hypothesizing that the substitute shortage is partly induced by teachers attempting to honor protocols when they otherwise would have attended work. He said that given the choice, many teachers would prefer to attend work instead of calling in sick because it involves “way more work” to do the latter.

“The school and the district [are] doing [their] best in a really stressful, difficult time,” BHS teacher and career advisor James Dopman said. “I think their concern is, how do we support teachers during this, and how can we support substitutes so we can keep schools running in person?”