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Teachers, ASD back to the bargaining table, while COVID leave raises eyebrows

 Anchorage School District building (KTUU)
Anchorage School District building (KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Aug. 25, 2021 at 6:58 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Anchorage educators and the Anchorage School District will be back at the bargaining table Wednesday and Thursday as teachers in the state’s largest school district work without an updated contract.

Educators’ contracts expired in June, and this week is the first time since then that the district and the Anchorage Education Association have come to the bargaining table after taking a break from the process. At the crux of this bargaining session, says AEA President Corey Aist, is contractual leave time.

The union, representing teachers and some other educators like school counselors and nurses, says the district is suggesting provisions that would allow administrators to deny the use of personal leave, and to change how and when teachers accumulate personal leave. It also says the district is suggesting language that may reduce the use of sick leave to care for a sick family member, and that would limit the duration and frequency of members’ ability to utilize unpaid leave.

Aist says the union is advocating for an option for some employees to be able to “cash out” their unused sick leave when they leave the district.

Both the union and district say they are working well to come to a solution on the contract.

“In the end, we’re working really well together to resolve issues and come together on a contract that meets association and educator needs, the district needs and the community,” Aist said Wednesday.

ASD’s Chief Human Resources Officer Matt Teaford agreed that negotiations, though on pause over the summer, were going well.

“The parties have made good progress in the negotiations to date,” he wrote in a statement Wednesday afternoon, “and expect to continue making progress toward settling a Negotiated Agreement that covers terms and conditions of employment for more than 3000 ASD employees.”

You can watch the negotiations here.

COVID leave offering, while not part of negotiations, raises eyebrows

The negotiations come at a time when teachers who are not vaccinated are concerned that they may use up all of their sick leave and go into unpaid status if they are infected with COVID-19.

Shortly before the school year began, Superintendent Deena Bishop had said that all employees would have to use their sick time for COVID-19 quarantine or illness.

While the ASD has a universal masking policy, the CDC’s guidelines for “close contacts” while fully masked only apply to unvaccinated students, not unvaccinated teachers.

Early this week, the district’s HR team told principals that if vaccinated employees test positive for COVID-19 and are unable to telework while quarantined, the employee can be paid for up to 10 days using “Site Level Admin Leave.” Only fully vaccinated employees are eligible for the leave, the memo said, and the site supervisor must confirm vaccination status and proof of a positive COVID-19 test before approving it.

That leave, while a concern of the AEA, Aist says, is not in the association’s contract, and will not be part of this week’s negotiations.

“It is an issue and a concern that we’re dialoguing about,” Aist said Wednesday, “but it’s not in the contract.”

From Aug. 17 — the first day of student instruction — to Wednesday, Aug. 25, ten ASD employees have utilized that site administrative leave for a combined 19 days for salaried employees, and 67 hours for hourly employees, according to district spokesperson Lisa Miller.

Those numbers refer only to vaccinated individuals. The district does not track how many sick or personal time requests are due to a close contact quarantine, she said.

Aist, with the Union, says while vaccination is an important protective tool against the pandemic, his goal is to make sure teachers, vaccinated and unvaccinated, don’t lose pay and benefits if they have to go on leave while quarantining, particularly if it happens more than once a year.

“We don’t really want any of our staff to run out of sick leave for other issues that might arise. We want them to be able to have some type of bank, and we definitely don’t want staff to be in any type of unpaid leave status and have financial constraints or different things that might be problematic,” Aist said.

Teachers get 12 or 13 sick days a school year, no matter their tenure, Aist says, and in scenarios like high schools, where teachers may have five classes of more than 30 students, the chance for exposure is higher than in lower grades where cohorting is possible.

Teaford, the chief human resources officer for ASD, said the decision to offer the site-level administrative leave only to vaccinated employees was primarily to cover staff who suffer from breakthrough cases.

“The effort was to create a new type of leave, which is specifically designed to provide leave for what is known as breakthrough cases,” Teaford said Wednesday evening. “The interest was to provide leave for those folks who had taken that effort to vaccinate, and essentially give them leave nonetheless because they contracted COVID. that was the focus, to cover those breakthrough cases.”

Everyone wants schools open and kids learning, Aist said Wednesday, “I want to make sure everyone who’s working and doing their best to do their job will not be in financial distress.”

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