Voters to decide on MPS school bonds

ADRIAN O’HANLON III | Staff photoThe school bus fleet at McAlester Public Schools totals 30.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Education leaders are dusting off an obscure pandemic law allowing public school teachers and administrators to still collect a paycheck while schools are shuttered the next two weeks amid the worsening COVID-19 outbreak.

However, the state law does not guarantee tens of thousands of school support staff will continue to collect their pay.

Education officials are now calling on lawmakers to fix what they view as a loophole and offer pay guarantees to districts’ hourly employees.

Earlier this week, the State Department of Education announced the closure of all K-12 public schools statewide until at least April 6 as the number of COVID-19 cases climb and the risk of community spread grows. State education officials are continuing to monitor the situation to determine if it’s necessary to extend the closures.

Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said an old state law that allows certified school personnel to collect paychecks in the event schools are shuttered due to a pandemic. It has never been used in recent memory.

“The fact that they omitted support employees was never even thought of until we need it,” he said.

The law protects the pay for certified staff like teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses and speech pathologists but is noticeably silent when it comes to school support personnel like teachers aides, janitors, cooks and maintenance workers.

“The short answer is we’re working on many different options to help schools find a way to pay their support employees,” Hime said. “Schools are looking for a way to pay all of their employees. They just want to make sure they’re able to do it legally.”

He said some staff will be granted extended emergency leave. Others will be paid to perform essential duties for districts like serving meals, mowing grass and keeping business operations flowing.

He said schools are working on temporary pay solutions.

“I would expect schools to find a way to ensure that support employees are paid in the short term while we’re working on a legislative remedy,” he said.

But, state law is clear.

“At this point, support staff only get paid if they work,” said Carrie Burkhart, a spokeswoman with the State Department of Education. “That does not mean we are encouraging them to work. In fact, just the opposite.”

She said officials understand that a small number of staff may be called on to perform essential jobs during the closures like providing meals to low-income students and performing administrative work.

Burkhart said her agency is working with the Legislature to come up with a solution when they next convene. Lawmakers have headed home amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. The House is not currently scheduled to meet next week. The Senate also will remain closed through March 27.

In the interim, state education officials said they know some districts have already granted administrative leave to some employees and are encouraging superintendents to liberally allocate extra sick days.

Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said her group is calling on the Legislature to protect support professionals.

State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has made it clear only essential personnel should be reporting, so most people won’t be able to work while schools are closed, she said.

Priest said Hofmeister has urged districts to find a temporary solution for 10 days or until schools are tentatively slated to reopen.

“We are working with legislators to try to close that loophole that left out our support professionals,” she said. “They are critical in schools running effectively and efficiently. We’ve got to do something to help out.”

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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