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Mingo County Board of Education member Sabrina Grace argues in favor of implementing a COVID-19 leave policy during a special board workshop meeting Monday, Nov. 8.

CINDERELLA — The Mingo County Board of Education voted 3-2 against adding leave days for employees specific to COVID-19 during a special workshop session of the board Monday, Nov. 8.

The idea to implement leave days related to COVID-19 was first discussed at length at the Oct. 19 meeting. At that time, board members decided to punt the issue to a later meeting in order to get more information.

The biggest proponent of adding COVID-19 leave days was board member Sabrina Grace.

“Employees are doing what we tell them to do — I hope they are anyway — and I hate for them to be punished,” Grace said.

“We have some people who, you know, if they’re a first-year teacher, or have something going on in the past that they have to take days, they’re going to be done, and that just seems like a punishment when they’re following the protocol set forth by the state and the county. That was my reasoning for wanting some sort of COVID leave days.

“If I were your employee, I would just kind of see it as a slap in the face if I didn’t have some kind of reassurance,” Grace added. “A lot of our employees are going full force, and they’re working really hard to make all this work.”

Board member Tom Slone noted that the majority of counties across the state do not have a COVID-19 leave policy. According to Superintendent Dr. Johnny Branch, only six or seven districts currently have some sort of leave policy in place.

“I think that looking at 49 counties that does not have a COVID leave policy speaks volumes,” Slone said. “I checked with other agencies like the community action partnerships. They’re not doing COVID leave policies this year. They did last year. A lot of the ESSERF (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) monies that has been given has already been earmarked for several things and I just … and also, I’ll mention that even healthcare workers that actually are treating COVID patients, if they get COVID, they use their paid time off. They don’t get any special consideration, and I just think that’s something at this time that we shouldn’t do.”

“What are the times where we’ve been a county that has led the way on something and it’s ‘Oh, look at us in Mingo County’?” Grace responded. “Other people in the state are looking at us to see what we do, so sometimes, we don’t always follow what the majority of the counties do. Again, I see it as a slap in the face to our employees, you know — ‘We appreciate everything that you’re doing, now use your sick days.’ That’s just my opinion.”

Treasurer Beth Daniels said the county’s fund balance is slightly lower than last year, and she also noted that ESSERF funds have already been earmarked for certain things. Daniels also said there isn’t a surplus of money to cover additional substitute costs.

Grace said a substitute would fill in for an employee who takes off regardless and that ESSERF funds aren’t used for the paid time off already in place.

“That money for the sub is the same whether you make me use my sick days or not,” Grace said. “I don’t want that to get miscommunicated somewhere, because that money is going to be spent on a sub whether I’m out with COVID or I’m out with whatever. The difference is do you make me take my days when I’m doing my job and it’s mandated that I don’t come? Let’s say I get the flu from a kid. I feel OK. You’re not even going to go to the doctor and get tested, you’re coming to work, because you’re not sick. But, if I have COVID and have a mild case of COVID, I’m not allowed to come to work.”

Slone said that implementing a COVID-19 leave policy at this point would open up a “can of worms” because of employees who have already contracted the virus. He said that if a policy were to be put in place, it should have been done prior to the start of school.

“I’ve asked for this since before school started, and the last meeting was the first time we officially discussed it, so I’ve been asking for it,” Grace said.

All board members agreed that the policy, if implemented, would have to be retroactive in nature. At last month’s meeting, chief school nurse Tonya Hagy said going back and trying to determine if an employee’s COVID-19 case was contracted from work would be a difficult task at this point.

After a brief back-and-forth with Slone, Grace made a motion to implement a COVID-19 leave policy that is retroactively traceable back to the first day of school. The motion died with no second.

Slone made a motion to not implement a COVID-19 leave policy but to allow an employee to keep their attendance incentive pay if they are off due to COVID-19. Grace said that would be no different than a leave policy since it also would have to be retroactively tracked.

“I just have a question,” Grace said. “I feel like I should turn around and talk to the wall ... how’s that any different in what you have to track? What about the teacher that took 12 days? You have to go back and track whether you take her incentive pay or not. It’s no different than going back and tracking if you don’t make her take those days.”

Superintendent Dr. Johnny Branch presented a policy from Cabell County, passed in October, that requires employees to provide documentation of isolation, thereby eliminating the need for a county employee or nurse to retroactively track it. Grace then presented that idea, but Slone’s motion passed by a 3-2 vote, with Grace and John Preece voting it down.

“So, you still want somebody to do all that work, you just don’t want to give them incentive days? If that helps you sleep better at night. I would be embarrassed,” Grace said. “This is ridiculous.”

HD Media news reporter Dylan Vidovich can be contacted via email at dvidovich@hdmediallc.com.

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