District Trendline

Leave and health insurance for teachers: safeguards amid COVID-19 worries

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In a recent teacher survey by Hart Research Associates and the American Federation of Teachers, half of all respondents indicate that they, or someone in their household, qualify as high-risk for contracting COVID-19 due to an underlying condition, and 76% are worried about getting infected with the coronavirus at school. The findings of this nationally representative survey unveil a major pressure point for teachers and staff as schools continue to consider their in-person options: What happens if I get sick?

While the Families First Coronavirus Act (FFCRA) granted certain eligible workers two weeks of paid sick leave for reasons related to COVID-19, this federal provision is set to expire on December 31, 2020—less than 90 days away. Although Congress is debating an extension, there is no indication that any new coronavirus-related legislation will be successful.

In the absence of a federal protection, it becomes the jurisdiction of individual districts to lay out protocols. This District Trendline examines the sick and personal leave policies, as well as some of the health insurance policies of 121 large districts across the nation: the 100 largest districts, plus the largest district in each state.

Sick and personal leave

The standard amount of sick and personal leave offered to teachers appears to be in the range of 10 to 14 days, which would only just cover the amount of time that individuals are required to quarantine upon exposure to coronavirus per CDC guidelines, if used until depleted. 77% of our sample falls within this range.

Since 2015, about a fifth of the districts in our sample have offered their teachers more than 15 days of leave. Some districts are outliers: Bridgeport Public Schools (CT), and Burlington School District (VT) stand out for offering their teachers 17.5 and 20 days of sick leave, respectively.

However, teachers typically do not use all of their sick leave. In the 2014 study Roll Call, we found that teachers use about 11 days of their average 13-day overall leave, and only half of their sick leave. While it appears teachers do not abuse the sick leave afforded to them, the current pandemic reminds us of its necessity when unforeseen circumstances arrive.

The vast majority of the districts in our District Trendline sample explicitly allow teachers to carry over their unused sick leave. In fact, 69% of districts in this sample do not limit sick leave accumulation at all, compared to 63% of districts just five years ago. These 84 districts stipulate no maximum to the accumulation of unused sick leave, a policy that is beneficial amid the current possibilities of long term illness and quarantine, but can also create potential budget liabilities by way of big payouts for unused accumulated leave.

Accordingly, the proportion of districts that establish a set limit to the unused sick leave carryover has declined from 31% to 26%. For most of these districts, however, there's a wide range distribution: the limit lies between 100 and 300 days of accumulated sick leave.

How are districts currently addressing sick leave policies?

To date, NCTQ has reviewed the collective bargaining agreements (CBA) or memoranda of understanding (MOUs) for 21 districts to address the coronavirus context during the 2020-2021 school year. More than half (13) provide additional leave for teachers when the cause for absence is COVID-19. However, this additional latitude is only afforded as a result of the federal provision allowing two additional weeks of leave—a provision, as we mentioned, that will disappear December 31, 2020 absent any additional action.

Only three districts in the 21 sanction additional leave that is not tied to the federal provision: Hillsborough County Public Schools' (FL) Memorandum of Understanding and Brevard Public Schools' (FL) Memorandum of Agreement both provide up to five additional days of sick leave per year for continuing coronavirus related symptoms once FFCRA leave is exhausted, while Montgomery County Public Schools' (MD) Memorandum of Understanding has a provision for "unusual and imperative leave with pay" for similar cases.

Boston Public Schools' (MA) Memorandum of Agreement with the local union includes a provision that exempts teachers from using sick leave during quarantine periods if the exposure is traceable to the workplace. In addition, each case will be evaluated for the possibility of switching the teacher to remote work, without any impact on the teacher's sick leave reserve.

Health insurance

The average total monthly premium for health care benefits for teachers in state and local governments stands at $556, a 13% increase over the last 5 years. Health insurance premiums can be a considerable burden for teachers who often earn below what other professionals of similar experience make. The share that employers cover of these health premiums is an important consideration in the evaluation of teachers' compensation.

Overall, the maximum percentage of a teacher's health insurance premium covered by the employer is far from negligible. It ranges from 41% to 100%, with an average of 91%. This year, the limits of these employer contributions only remain unaddressed in one-fourth of the districts of our sample, compared to 37% in 2015. This means that more districts are now establishing clear expectations on the cost of health insurance for their teachers.

When it comes to the teachers' dependents' coverage, the maximum percentage of the health insurance premium that employers cover has decreased over the past 5 years. In 2015, employers on average covered a maximum of 83% of health insurance premiums for dependents. Today this percentage stands at 77%.

How are health benefits being addressed in coronavirus-related district-union agreements?

The cost of coronavirus treatment is estimated at a staggering $30,000 and above depending on location and use of insurance network. Even with health insurance, depending on the severity of the health effects of the virus, cost shares and other out-of-pocket expenses can become a significant liability for the average budget.

Among the 21 districts that NCTQ has reviewed for coronavirus related bargaining agreements and memoranda, Miami-Dade County Public Schools stands out for including provisions that ease the health care burden on its employees. The district's Letter of Understanding (LOU) with the local union waives the 90-day waiting period that is normally required for employees to access their insurance-covered healthcare, dependent healthcare, life insurance, and short term disability. The district also waives copays and cost shares for any COVID-19 related testing and diagnosis services. Their LOU also states that the district "will explore minimizing out-of-pocket expenses for individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and make applicable subsequent modifications to the 2020 and 2021 Healthcare MOU's."

Although many of these policies do not address the coronavirus contagion risk of teachers back in the classroom, they still represent non-trivial safeguards. While we acknowledge that NCTQ's current sample of COVID-19 related district documentation is limited and not nationally representative, it is surprising that so few districts have formally acted on such important provisions.


District and State COVID Teacher Policy Tracker SY20-21: A spreadsheet tracker of policies in formal negotiated agreements between teachers unions and school districts regarding: Health and Safety, Teacher Assignment, Instruction Requirements, Teacher Evaluation, and Teacher Leave Policies. The second tab of the tracker has state guidance and policies on teacher evaluation for SY20-21.

All NCTQ COVID-19 Teacher Policy Response Data and Recommendations: A collection of all the data, analyses, and recommendations NCTQ has provided regarding district and state policy responses to COVID-19 since March 2020.

District Sick Leave and Health Benefits Data in the Teacher Contract Database: A report that includes the above data and more on sick leave and health benefits in the nation's largest school districts. Use the TCD Custom Report tool to create, share, and export data on dozens of teacher policy topics.