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Safety gear and classroom materials are laid out for each student as teachers prepare for their return to the classroom at Highlawn Elementary School on Jan. 19 in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON — The local board of education extended an olive branch, but some school employees believe more could be done for those who are forced to take time off work because of the coronavirus.

At the most recent meeting of the Cabell County Board of Education, the elected body voted to amend the written verbiage of the Employee Attendance Incentive program, which now allows days missed due to testing positive for COVID-19 or quarantining due to exposure to be excused and not count as a penalty against the attendance incentive program.

If any school employee misses five or fewer full instruction days during the academic year, they are eligible to cash in up to 15 days for $75 each at the end of the school year, a reward of up to $1,125.

The program was introduced due to a large number of absences among school employees, who were using their allotment of paid time off during the school year.

To reduce those, Superintendent Ryan Saxe introduced this program and hopes it encourages attendance throughout the year.

“I think that it’s important that our employees use those days wisely. We have some employees that will use all 15 days every year regardless, and we never know what is going to impact our lives, and being able to make sure we use those days wisely is an important step to take,” Saxe said.

Enter the coronavirus, which has made its way into schools, infecting both students and staff who have inevitably had to miss time due to contracting the virus or being exposed to it.

While students are able to complete assignments virtually in some cases, employees must use their sick leave in order to be paid for their time away, even in a situation where there is a quarantine required by the local health department or otherwise.

“I haven’t had to use [sick days] yet because I haven’t tested positive. My son, who is in the autism room at Hurricane High, was exposed and tested positive yesterday,” Cabell Midland teacher Rhonda Wood said last week. “I am currently negative, but worry I won’t stay that way.”

Because of a complicated medical history, Wood said she hasn’t been able to stock up her sick days and has about five days of leave available.

In a recent interview, Saxe said once an employee has exhausted all personal leave, each day missed after that would be unpaid.

Wood said if she ends up contracting the virus or is required to quarantine, it could cost her up to $1,500 that she could have earned if other leave options were available.

Last year, the school district used federal funds to reimburse employees for time missed due to the coronavirus, and those individuals weren’t required to use their personal sick days. No such option is available this year.

“I really don’t know that there’s anything we can do as a school district at this time that would provide additional flexibility beyond what we are able to do with the attendance incentive,” Saxe said while addressing board member Rhonda Smalley, who asked if there were any other options available to employees who were required to miss work.

Michelle Black, another teacher in Cabell County, said she used nine of her sick days when she contracted the virus.

“I hated that I had to use my sick days for something I know for sure I got on the job,” Black said. “I have been in the school system for a while, so I have sick days banked, but out of my [allotted] 15 per year, I have already used nine.”

Black emphasized that she did not blame the school board or any policy they have chosen to enforce, but just wishes that more could be done for employees like her and others who find themselves in similar situations.

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