Chelsea Cekutis, a teacher in the Freeport-based Regional School Unit 5, may soon face a difficult decision: Either take unpaid time off when her second child is born, or cut her maternity leave short.

That’s because since last fall Cekutis and many other school workers across the state have had to use their own sick time, either to fulfill quarantine requirements from COVID-19 exposure or if they have to stay home to care for a young child who has been exposed.

“Our current sick leave program was not designed for a global pandemic,” she said.

Cekutis was among several teachers who urged lawmakers Monday to close what they consider to be a loophole in a bill passed last year requiring school districts to provide 15 extra days off to school staff for COVID-19 related absences.

Language in that bill said districts must restore sick time for COVID-19 related absences “prior to the effective date of this section,” which was Oct. 18. That’s been interpreted by some districts to mean that any absences after Oct. 18 are not eligible for that extra time, which has forced workers to use personal sick time during mandatory quarantines.

Proponents of a new bill that would clarify language in the law, including sponsor Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, argue that a fix is needed to ensure that they’re able to take care of their families, while also taking on the added risk of providing in-person learning, which has been deemed as necessary to improve both learning and mental health among students. His bill would ensure that all school workers would get an additional 15 days for COVID-19 related absences.


But an association representing school managers, including superintendents and school boards, argued that a statewide bill is unnecessary and would infringe on local control.

While vaccines and masking have reduced or eliminated quarantines for most students and adults who are close contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19, that’s not the case for people with children under 5 who cannot be vaccinated, said Cekutis, who has a 1-year-old son.

“My son has already had to complete two 10-day quarantines from day care and unfortunately with the prevalence of omicron we anticipate having to do this at least once or twice before the end of the school year,” she said. “Any other sick days I take this year will mean that next year I will either need to take a portion of my maternity leave unpaid or I will have to cut my maternity leave short.”


Other teachers and union representatives also testified before the Labor and Housing Committee in support of the bill that would grant extra sick time for quarantines.

Peter Colsworthy, a seventh-grade math and science teacher at Mt. Ararat Middle School in Topsham, said he gets about 14 sick days a year. In addition to pandemic-related absences, Colsworthy said he needs to take a day off every three or four months to receive treatment for an autoimmune disorder, which makes him more susceptible to illness. Colsworthy said he has twice contracted COVID-19 in his classroom, once in December and again in January. He’s used 13 of his sick days and his last one is earmarked for his treatment. If he gets sick again, he will go unpaid.


“At this point in time we essentially have an uncontrolled pandemic spreading through our schools and us teachers are getting caught in the cross fire,” he said. “The idea that we would punish those teachers who have shown up and gotten sick as a result has left many of us incredibly frustrated. None of us should be facing lost sick days and docked pay as we attempt to create some sense of normalcy for our kids and their families.”

The Maine School Management Association issued guidance to member school boards and administrators that the law only required districts to provide leave taken between Jan. 1, 2021, and Oct. 18, 2021, when the law took effect. MSMA Executive Director Steve Bailey said his organization conferred with attorneys at Drummond Woodsum, which provides legal services to many school districts, and they agreed that the bill text set an effective sunset date for the requirement.

Bailey said the MSMA opposes the new bill, noting that several school districts, such as Gardiner, South Portland, Portland, Old Orchard Beach and Blue Hill, have reached agreements with local unions to address COVID-19 absences.

“A mandate for this passed down by the Legislature just doesn’t work,” Bailey said. “The Labor and Housing Committee and the Legislature should respect the role of the school boards, residents and property taxpayers who support public education.”


Bailey said that districts are adopting their own agreements when necessary, but union leaders said that’s not the case. Without clarification from the Legislature, they predicted a flood of grievances to be filed before Maine Labor Relations Board.


“There are grievances piling up around the state – there’s no question about that,” said John Kosinski, the Maine Education Association’s government relations director.

The Maine Principals’ Association also supports the bill, even though it has concerns about costs and the availability of substitute teachers.

Krystal Ash-Cuthbert, a fifth-grade teacher and president of the Scarborough teachers union, told lawmakers that if they fail to act the union was prepared to take legal action against the school district to win back pay for teachers who lost wages over COVID-related absences.

We have many people who have gone without pay as a result of the pandemic,” she said. 

Ash-Cuthbert said in an interview after the hearing that the union has been negotiating with the school board since October for its own agreement to cover COVID-related absences, but to no avail. She said she couldn’t disclose details of the confidential negotiations but stressed the importance of the bill to fix the issue statewide.

“The reason this law passed last year and is back in front the Legislature this year is because so many districts aren’t doing this,” she said. “Some are having more success than others. In Scarborough, we’re not having the success that we had hoped for.”

Neither Scarborough Superintendent Geoffrey Bruno nor the school board leadership, Chairwoman Shannon Lindstrom and Vice Chairwoman Alicia Giftos, responded to emails requesting an interview Monday afternoon.

The Labor and Housing Committee will hold a work session on the bill in the coming weeks, before sending a recommendation to the full Legislature.

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