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Schools will pay employees during shutdown

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SMITHFIELD — Here’s the short version: Johnston County school system employees will get paid while schools are closed because of the coronavirus.

“We will continue to pay our staff pending further guidance from the state,” Todd Sutton, chairman of the Johnston County Board of Education, said during an emergency meeting last week.

What happens later is anyone’s guess.

“We do not know at this time how the state will address makeup time, staff pay and other critical matters,” Sutton said.

It’s possible, for example, that the state could require employees to make up the days they missed, the checks they received during the school shutdown amounting to prepayment for days worked later.

“What we don’t know is whether there will be makeup days later on,” said Ken Soo, currently attorney to the school board. “So we might have to treat that as prepaid time.”

But not everything is uncertain; some guidance has come down from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

“Days now in the calendar as student days will be optional teacher workdays ... with teachers requested to work from home whenever possible,” Sutton said.

Two days after Sutton made that statement, Johnston made that request to work from home a mandate. In a message delivered via phone and email, the schools told employees to stay away from their campuses and offices.

“Out of abundance of caution for the safety of all staff, the decision has been made to transition all staff to teleworking effective Friday, March 20, until further notice,” the school system said.

The schools told employees to give some thought as to how they can work while away from their classrooms, offices and other workplaces. “For example, online professional learning would be appropriate during teleworking,” the schools said. “If employees cannot telework, they may utilize leave or make up the time at a later date, if practical.”

The announcement recognized that not all employees may have internet-connected devices with which to work from home. “At this time, we are gathering information regarding employee access to an electronic device for all of our certified and classified staff,” the schools said.

The schools said they might have to occasionally summon some employees to come into work. “We will identify a skeleton crew of individuals who may need to report to work during critical times,” the schools said. “This group may be on-call and only report when needed for very basic operations of the school system and follow all guidance regarding social distancing.”

Of course, the schools are operating 13 meal sites during the shutdown. “But only critical staff will be allowed to be near the food site or in the delivery of food on buses,” the schools said. “Those critical staff members will be provided protocols to protect themselves. We will also ask that all volunteers who may be at a feeding site follow social distancing guidelines.”

In the meantime, paychecks will continue to go into employee bank accounts, the school board said.

“We don’t know what the state’s going to do, but what we want to do is make sure that we take care of our staff,” Sutton said.
Also last week, the board gave interim superintendent Ben Williams the authority to waive school board policies if needed to respond to the coronavirus.

The aim, Sutton said, is “to enable Johnson County public schools to respond swiftly and effectively to emerging threats and other issues posed by the coronavirus pandemic.”

Finally last week, the board took no action after a closed session on what it called an urgent personnel matter.