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Funding request endorsed by state panel; leave pay sought for school staffs

by Michael R. Wickline | August 18, 2020 at 7:12 a.m.

The state Department of Education's request for $20 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to create a covid-19 emergency leave fund for public school employees won the endorsement Monday of a state panel appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

The fund would provide up to two weeks of paid leave for teachers and school staff members if they are required to isolate or quarantine due to a positive covid-19 test or being a close contact and if they can't continue to fulfill their job duties remotely, the Department of Education stated in its written proposal to the 15-member Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act steering committee.

The covid-19 emergency leave for school employees would be available for "first use," meaning school employees could be allowed to access this leave before using any personal or other types of leave allowed by district policy or federal law, according to the department's proposal.

"School personnel worry whether their available leave will be exhausted within the first few months of school," Deputy Education Commissioner Ivy Pfeffer told the steering committee.

"For new teachers and young parents, this worry is even more pronounced as they have less leave time built up to use," she said.

Hutchinson asked the department to develop a plan to address concerns that he's heard from many educators about having sufficient leave, and the department has worked with teachers and administrators to develop this proposal to give public school employees more options, Pfeffer said.

"With so many unknowns, taking action to provide a level of certainty about continued compensation through the covid-19 emergency leave is one less worry for the approximately 70,000 employees who will return to work in our public schools," she said.

The eligibility for the program would be based on directives from the state Department of Health that would require the district employees to be absent from work to quarantine or isolate, and the employees being unable to perform their job duties remotely, Pfeffer said.

Isolation will be required when a staff member tests positive for covid-19, Pfeffer said. A medical professional may require an employee to quarantine because the employee has covid-19 symptoms, and an employee also may be required to quarantine if identified by a district as a probable close contact to a confirmed case, she said.

For employees meeting the eligibility criteria, districts may submit claims for reimbursement of salary and fringe benefits for employee absences that occur between Aug. 1 and Dec. 30 of this year, she said.

Johnny Key, secretary of the state Department of Education, said the department originally was going to request $15 million in federal coronavirus relief funds for the program. The department reviewed that estimate because of some concern that $15 million wasn't going to be enough, and it increased the request to $20 million.

State Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, said he's worried that the $20 million request might not be enough, and he asked the Department of Health to review the Department of Education's estimates.

"I want to make sure that we take care of our teachers and staff with regards to getting them tested quickly and results turned around," Bond said.

Key said the Department of Health is working on a priority testing protocol for school employees, adding it's important that school employees know that if they need to be tested, they need to go to their local health units because that's the quickest way to get the results to the lab and turned around.

Greg Rogers, the assistant education commissioner for finance and administration, said the state Department of Education has sufficient appropriation for the $20 million school employee covid-19 emergency leave fund and won't need to ask the Legislative Council for additional authorization for the fund.

In other action on Monday, the CARES Act steering committee also recommended approval of the state Department of Agriculture's revised request for $5 million in federal coronavirus relief funds for a grant program to help Arkansas' meat processing facilities expand their capacity amid the pandemic, as well as the department's request for $215,436 for reimbursement of information technology costs.

The House and Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development committees on Monday favorably reviewed both of the department's requests, said Wes Ward, secretary of the state Department of Agriculture.

The revised meat processing grant program would reimburse up to 90% of the eligible expenses for noncapital improvements -- up from the initial proposal to reimburse up to 75% of the eligible expenses -- based on the recommendation of the agriculture committees, he said.

Arkansas currently has only three small-scale meat processing facilities that have the necessary federal inspection to allow the commercial sale of meat processed by the facility, and about 40 custom-exempt and non-federally inspected facilities that cannot sell their processed meat commercially, according to the department.

The grants would be available to existing federally inspected facilities, custom-exempt facilities that expand and meet U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection requirements, and any new facilities that meet USDA inspection standards, the state agency said in its proposal.

The department initially expected 20 or fewer grant applications.

If the Legislative Council grants the department spending authority for the grant program on Friday, Ward said that "we would open up that application process through Sept. 30" and have a quick turnaround on the announcement of the grant recipients.

The department's request for $215,436 in federal coronavirus relief funds would be used for the reimbursement of the purchase of computer equipment, communication equipment and online payment systems for its licensing and permitting programs.

The CARES Act steering committee on Monday also voted to support the state Department of Health and the Marshallese Covid-19 Response Task Force's request for $293,600 in federal coronavirus relief funds for various virus-related needs of the Marshallese population. These funds would cover burial expenses; the hiring of Marshallese staff members to assist in outreach; a focused media and information campaign; and support for the population with things such as cleaning supplies, diapers and formula, and masks.

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