Brainerd Public Schools staff members who need to take time off due to the coronavirus may be eligible for supplemental COVID-19 leave, the school board agreed Monday, Jan. 11.

The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed in 2020 required certain employers, like the school district, to provide 10 days of paid sick leave to eligible employees for specified reasons related to COVID-19. But because that legislation ended Dec. 31 and was not replaced with any other state or federal mandatory leave regulations, Brainerd school administrators decided to offer another form of leave to their employees.

“We wanted to look into ways we could still provide some protection to our staff while we’re awaiting the vaccine, but also being very cognizant over our budget, as the expense under the emergency sick leave is not covered under any of the CARES money or any of the additional funding that we had been provided to help us manage through this pandemic,” Human Resources Director Angie Bennett told the board Monday. “

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School board members approved a memorandum of understanding with the district’s collective bargaining unit — which has yet to sign off on the agreement — to grant eligible employees 10 days of paid sick leave. The allotment is for employees who did not exhaust their emergency sick leave before the Families First Coronavirus Response Act expired and may be used in cases when employees or their children who are students at Brainerd Public Schools have been exposed to the coronavirus during working hours or while at school. Eligible employees must have either been identified as a close contact during the work day with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 or tested positive themselves after having come into close contact with a case during working hours. In each case, the employee must be someone who is unable to work remotely during the required quarantine period due to illness or their type of position. Employees are also eligible for the supplemental leave if a member of their household who is a Brainerd Public Schools student has been identified as a close contact at the district, necessitating the employee to be home with the student during quarantine without being able to work remotely.

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Employees who come into contact with COVID-19 outside of work are not eligible for the supplemental leave.

Superintendent Laine Larson would have the authority to approve additional paid leave beyond the 10 days on a case-by-case basis if, for example, an employee becomes seriously ill and must be home or hospitalized for an extended period of time.

If approved by the collective bargaining unit, the memorandum of understanding will run from Jan. 1 - March 31. Administrators were told vaccine doses may be ready for district employees by late March or early April. If other federal or state sick leave policies take effect before March 31, the memorandum of understanding would end.

“I think this is a good thing that we should be doing,” board member Ruth Nelson said. “We should be protecting our teachers.”

Board member Tom Haglin said while he would ultimately approve the measure, he was hesitant, as there seemed to be too many red flags in the agreement.

“I understand our staff and the needs, but it seems like we’re really focused in and not taking into consideration other areas of operation and businesses as well,” he said. “... I’m just a little concerned about putting together such a short-lived MOU that typically, I would think, would take more vetting.”

Haglin said he had some concerns and worried about putting Larson under undue pressure by designating her as the final decision maker on granting extended leave.

“If you do it once, you’re going to be setting precedents,” he said. “I am concerned about that.

Larson said other district policies, including those pertaining to health care, have similar clauses for extenuating circumstances.

“It’s not something that you do very lightly, but there are times where that authority is really nice,” Larson said.

And even though the memorandum is short-lived — as opposed to measures in other districts lasting the remainder of the school year — Larson said she feels it’s a good gesture on the part of administrators.

“We really feel that this is a modified plan, a memorandum of understanding that tells our staff that we get it,” she said. “They’re coming back to school under some parameters that they are really uncomfortable with. … And so we just want them to know that we’re going to try to accommodate them and work with this. It’s short-term until the vaccine comes out, but we feel that it’s kind of a nice happy medium to show that we really do care and we get it.”

Bennett said the memorandum has been vetted by the district’s legal counsel, which also also worked with other districts across the state on similar measures.

Board Chair Bob Nystrom said he shared some of Haglin’s concerns.

“I don’t like MOUs because they almost become legal documents, and people will say, ‘Well, it says that there. You’re legally bound,’” Nystrom said. “I think it’s unfortunate that we have to do an MOU. Why can’t we just have to have a policy to allow this under the extraordinary circumstance that we’re in?”

Bennett said it had to be a memorandum because the measure is granting additional leave under an already-negotiated contract. If it were a board resolution, she said, then all areas of emergency sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the expanded Family and Medical Leave Act would also have to be extended.

“(The MOU) does have a clear start and end date. It does not mean that anything is going to be in the contract moving forward because this wouldn’t apply necessarily,” Bennett said. “Hopefully we’ll be in a different situation when we negotiate the next contract.”

Nelson said the end date is one of the reasons she is comfortable with the measure.

Board member Jana Shogren said the memorandum makes a lot of sense and will, perhaps, give the district extra motivation when it comes to mitigation tactics.

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“As adults, we should really be extra careful about social distancing,” she said.

Bennett agreed and added part of her motivation for this agreement was to protect district workers who aren’t able to work remotely, like cooks and custodians, for example, and don’t have any sick leave left.

“I would feel very bad for an employee that we had to put on a 14-day quarantine and say, ‘I’m sorry, you’re not going to get paid,’ and all of a sudden your district contribution to your benefits no longer exists,” Bennett said.

As a professional in a leadership role himself, board member Charles Black Lance said he has seen the legitimate fear after asking employees to come back to the workplace.

“I feel that this is an important step that we can do as a school district to stand behind those employees that have to go to school, have to go to work or do go to work, chose to go to work, despite that fear,” Black Lance said. “And if this can help alleviate some of that and fill in some of those gaps potentially for them, I’m all for it.”

The motion ultimately passed unanimously.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.