State teachers getting paid during closures; other school employees face uncertainty

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For one nerve-wracking weekend, Luanna Martz didn’t know whether she would lose three weeks of pay. As a nursing office health assistant for La Porte Community Schools in northern Indiana, she was one of the state’s many hourly school workers who were left wondering what weeks-long district closures would mean.

Nearly all of the schools in the state were closed by Monday, most shutting their doors through at least spring break in an attempt to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Teachers’ salaries are covered by their contracts, and the state waiver allowing schools to cancel classes without makeup days means teachers will be paid even while campuses are closed.

But it’s up to each district to decide whether to pay hourly workers—including bus drivers, custodians, food service employees, and paraprofessionals who assist in classrooms—who are typically paid only for days when students are present.

“We’re kind of out there floating on our own, and sweat bullets for a while, because we don’t ever really know how things are going to go for us,” said Martz. She found out on Monday that La Porte will continue paying all employees during the closure.

Several districts, including Decatur Township, Wayne Township, Pike Township and Indianapolis Public Schools, have already committed to paying their hourly workers. But some school officials said they remained uncertain of whether they would continue to do so if the state or federal government recommended longer closures to combat the quickly spreading virus.

Administrators are making decisions “a day at a time, a week at a time,” said Decatur Township Superintendent Matthew Prusiecki, whose workforce includes some 500 hourly employees.

At most districts, some essential hourly employees, including custodians and maintenance staff, remain at the buildings to keep schools clean and sanitized. Wayne Township staff who are considered critical were given the option to work, whether cleaning buildings or helping to package and distribute meals, said Superintendent Jeff Butts. Those who volunteered are being paid an hourly stipend of $5 above their regular wage.

The stipend, however, likely isn’t sustainable for the district. Butts said school officials plan to pay hourly employees through the end of the school year, but would have to reevaluate offering the stipend if closures are extended.

And extensions seem possible, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Monday that events with 50 or more people be canceled for the next eight weeks—well after schools in Indiana are tentatively expected to return. Unlike most other states, Indiana has not mandated or encouraged schools to close statewide.

Should state or federal money become available, Butts said the district would apply for reimbursement for any unexpected costs related to its coronavirus response, including the stipend.

For Martz, the future is still on her mind despite the relief of knowing she will be paid for the next few weeks. She is doing as much as she can from home, including preparing vaccination notices to be distributed to parents. But there’s not much she can do, she said.

“Will they continue to be able to do this for us? We don’t know,” she said, noting how rapidly the situation and guidance is changing. “We’re still all thinking ahead. How can you not? Everywhere you go, that’s all you’re hearing about.”

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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