Daily Herald opinion: New law covering school personnel against COVID-19 issues acknowledges sacrifice, encourages safety

  • Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a bill entitling public school educators who are vaccinated against COVID-19 to receive paid administrative leave for any days they miss this school year due to coronavirus-related issues.

    Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a bill entitling public school educators who are vaccinated against COVID-19 to receive paid administrative leave for any days they miss this school year due to coronavirus-related issues. Capitol News Illinois Photo

 
The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 4/11/2022 2:26 PM
This editorial represents the consensus opinion of The Daily Herald Editorial Board.

They are not alone in the situation, but teachers and other school personnel have been on the front lines of the pandemic from the beginning, and they've been in the uncomfortable middle of the culture conflict over managing the disease. So, it is fitting that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law last week a measure that will help ensure that at least the crisis will not cost them more.

Under the new law, all vaccinated employees -- not just teachers -- of public schools, community colleges and public universities will be entitled to paid administrative leave for days they miss or have missed this year because of infection from or exposure to COVID-19.

 

The issue is not without controversy. Critics rightly note that teachers, in particular, enjoy generous health benefits, some of which can be turned into cash at retirement if they go unused. And some opponents bristled because the law applies only to vaccinated personnel.

But COVID-19 has posed conditions beyond the expectations of the standard work arrangement for a set of employees placed in a position of special risk. And the vaccine requirement -- on which Pritzker insisted when he vetoed the original version of the legislation -- is a wholly reasonable demand. It is not, as some opponents claimed, the equivalent of forced vaccination, since no one's job is tied to the requirement. But it is a responsible way to encourage individuals who are in close contact with each other and our children to take the most important precaution for preventing the spread of the disease.

Indeed, allowing the unvaccinated access to the benefit would make them the most likely to use it, adding to its cost and posing the potential irony of absolving and even rewarding individuals who put others at risk. Might it encourage them to come to school even if they have COVID symptoms or have been with people who do? Maybe, but keep in mind that this is a group that already is demonstrating a willingness to put others at risk, so this benefit seems hardly likely to embolden them further.

"What we're trying to do, of course, is to encourage people to do the right thing to keep their students safe, to keep the rest of the school safe, by being vaccinated. That's the whole purpose of that provision in the law," Pritzker said during the bill signing.

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And his broader description of the law emphasized its fundamental value.

"It ensures that if a teacher has done their part to keep their classroom safe for their most vulnerable students," he said, "they won't have to worry for a second about their pay or their paid time off if they get COVID, or if they're required to isolate, or if the school has moved to e-learning and their work can't be done at home."

This is not a circumstance that applies solely to school personnel, of course. Certain other public employees -- police, fire and health workers come immediately to mind -- also have taken on a special risk during the pandemic. Hopefully, ways can be found to ensure that the responsible members of these groups, too, will not suffer unduly because of the nature of their duties.

But teachers and other school personnel at least can now take comfort in knowing that the unusual burden of a two-year pandemic will not bring them added costs as well as added risks -- and the fact that they'll be required to be vaccinated to have that assurance will not only encourage responsible behavior but also help reduce the need for the benefit in the first place.

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