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Staff members now have five COVID-19 sick days and two mental health days.

Madison Metropolitan School District staff members who are eligible for benefits have five days of COVID-19 sick leave and two mental health days — and more could be coming soon.

The School Board approved the new COVID-19 emergency leave during a special meeting Monday.

Madison Teachers Inc. president Michael Jones and MMSD spokesman Tim LeMonds told the Cap Times earlier in the day Monday’s vote was an immediate solution to a problem, but that discussions are ongoing and a broader change is expected to be in front of the board soon.

Superintendent Carlton Jenkins echoed that to board members Monday.

“We’re just trying to get to where we can best show value for all of our people,” Jenkins said. “We all come back together and figure out the remainder of what we need to do for this year.”

Five board members voted in favor of the change, with board president Ali Muldrow recusing herself due to a conflict of interest and board member Christina Gomez Schmidt abstaining. 

In a petition last week regarding the district’s return to in-person instruction amid the Omicron variant’s spread, MTI suggested “all employees should have a restoration of 10 sick days and should recover all lost wages for absences related to COVID-19.”

“This includes failed symptom screeners, quarantine of staff, students and family members, and isolation from having COVID-19; all related to MMSD and public health protocols,” the union wrote. “This will allow staff to deal with absences during the 2021-22 school year and beyond without additional harm.”

Monday’s discussion was mostly supportive of the change, but board member Cris Carusi proposed one amendment that failed on a 3-3 vote. Carusi said she was concerned that staffing shortages could cause staff members to be unable to use the new mental health days, as principals might deny requests if they cannot otherwise staff their buildings.

“I’m just worried that as a board we’re going to make a move that looks good on paper and makes our staff feel loved but can’t actually be implemented … because we don’t have enough staff to allow staff to take that time off consistently and equitably in every building,” she said.

According to a staffing analysis provided to the School Board last week, the fill rate for staff absences has dropped to 54.92% this school year — down from 70.84% in the 2020-21 school year and a significant drop from the rates in the 80% and 90% ranges from 2015-16 until last school year.

The substitute teacher pool has dropped from an average near 650 from 2016-20 to 391 this school year, with 84 of those also subbing for other area districts.

Her amendment suggested those days instead take the place of planned professional development days. Jenkins discouraged the change amid the ongoing conversations with MTI.

“That would not be a suggestion that I would want to put on the table,” he said, adding that staff do not want to lose PD time.

Board member Savion Castro thanked district and MTI officials for finding a quick solution while also considering broader options.

“I’m thankful that we’re moving forward with this and understand that we’ve got to come back to this in the future,” Castro said.

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