Dalton school board approves substitute pay increase, teacher stipends and paid COVID-19 leave

Ryan Anderson/Daily Citizen-News

Staff members help Dalton Public Schools students find their way between The Dalton Academy and Dalton Junior High School on the first day of the 2021-22 school year last month. Roughly 2.5% of Dalton Public Schools' 7,748 students are currently accessing virtual-only instruction, Laura Orr, chief academic officer, told Dalton Board of Education members on Monday. 

The Dalton Board of Education approved a pay increase for substitutes Monday, as well as a stipend for teachers using planning time to cover other classrooms and seven days of paid COVID-19 leave.

School employees had paid COVID-19 leave until Dec. 31, 2020 thanks to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act which Congress elected not to extend into 2021, and the measure adopted 4-0 — Chairman Matt Evans was absent — provides seven days of paid leave this school year for employees "for anything COVID-19 related," said Mendy Woods, Dalton Public Schools' chief human resources officer. That includes a positive test, need to quarantine or having to care for a family member with COVID-19.

The policy is effective retroactive to July 1, so employees who have already taken leave due to COVID-19 can use these seven days for coverage, said Superintendent Tim Scott. The policy will continue through June 2022.

The board members also approved 4-0 a $10 increase for substitute pay. The daily rate for substitute teachers is now $85, the daily rate for substitute paraprofessionals is now $75, the daily rate for long-term substitute teachers is now $120 and the daily rate for long-term substitutes with teaching certification is now $135.

Also approved 4-0 is a $35 stipend for teachers who forfeit their planning period to cover another classroom.

"A lot of our teachers are getting pulled to cover classes," Woods said.

"Every day we wake up, it's challenging, and (teachers) are on the front lines," said Tulley Johnson, the school board's treasurer. "We're trying to find ways to make it safe for everybody."

"Everything we do is under this cloud of COVID-19, and it's difficult," added school board member Sam Sanders.

"We want to keep our kids safe, and we want to educate them," said board member Jody McClurg. "Our students — even in the midst of everything — are thriving, and our administrators and staff are (handling) whatever is thrown at them."

"Our charge is instruction, and we've also been handed COVID-19, (but) I appreciate the diligence in our mitigation steps," said Palmer Griffin, vice chairman of the school board. "It's everyone working together, and I appreciate that from the bottom of my heart."

The Whitfield County Health Department is now offering free, rapid COVID-19 testing for Dalton Public Schools employees Monday-Friday without need of an appointment, Woods said.

"We've had a number of employees take advantage of that and get results quickly."

Woods is also "looking into" a possible grant from the state Department of Education that would provide free weekly testing for students, she said. Students/parents would have to "opt in" to the program, and "I'd love to be able to have students and their families tested, if possible."

Dalton Public Schools has hired additional contact tracers, so the school system now has about a dozen total, and "that's been going well," Woods said. "We've even had a volunteer," retired physician Luis Viamonte, assist with contact tracing, "and we might have more volunteers" in the future.

The purpose of contact tracing is to "break the chain of transmission," said Bliss Jones, who has led the school system's COVID-19 coordination effort. That begins with a case interview, talking to the student and/or his or her parents if the student is too young or otherwise unable to answer questions.

"We determine when their infectious period started," which is two days prior to the onset of symptoms or if asymptomatic two days before a positive test was collected, Jones said. "Exposure" is defined as within three feet of someone with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes in a day.

At Westwood School, "we go to rooms to see visually where (a student) was sitting, and we'll even get out a ruler or tape measure," said Principal Scott Ehlers. His school also relies heavily on input from classroom teachers, because "they see the kids all day."

"We also need to think about buses, after-school" and other situations when contact tracing, Ehlers said. "Eating in classrooms has helped, (because) in the cafeteria everyone was clustered together."

"We are being super, super careful right now," Jones said. "If you know you've been exposed, a sniffle is not just a sniffle unless proved otherwise."

Dalton High School homecoming is Oct. 8 and any activities will be outdoors due to COVID-19, Scott said. "There won't be anything inside."

And parents should not send students to school "if they don't feel well," Scott said. "If you're not feeling well, you probably should not be in school."

Dalton Public Schools has established a COVID-19 dashboard, available online at https://www.daltonpublicschools.com/district-resources/covid-19-data-dashboard.

Dalton Public Schools reported 30 total active student cases of COVID-19 last week and nine total active staff cases, both down significantly from prior weeks. There were 84 active student cases the prior week, with 16 active staff cases.

"It's important to remember the difference between 'all' and 'new' cases," as the school system reports cases as "active" until an individual returns to work or school, so one case could be reported for multiple weeks, Woods said. Overall, "the numbers seem to be going in the right direction, at least in the past week or so."

Dalton Public Schools' current enrollment is 7,748, down 38 from this time last year, and 2.5% of students in kindergarten-grade 12 are accessing virtual-only instruction, said Laura Orr, chief academic officer. Students and parents can apply for virtual instruction, and school officials will review those applications.

"This week, we're moving from five to six virtual teachers for" kindergarten-grade eight, and "we can take care of that with existing staff," Orr said. Her department is also looking for more ways to allow virtual learners into schools with their teachers on a limited basis, like to do a science experiment, with ample social distancing measures.

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