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$20M in paid COVID-19 leave for Arkansas teachers proposed

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and education officials on Friday proposed setting aside $20 million for teachers who have to miss work because of the coronavirus as the state reported one of its biggest increases in confirmed virus cases since the pandemic began.

Hutchinson proposed using federal coronavirus relief funds to provide up to two weeks of paid leave for teachers and staff who have to quarantine because of the virus. The proposal goes before a state panel next week.

Teachers and staff would use this leave before using any of their own sick days or personal leave under the plan, state Education Secretary Johnny Key said.

“We don’t want that to have to come out of their ordinary leave or their pocket,” Hutchinson said.

Arkansas public schools reopen later this month, despite objections from teachers and pediatricians about resuming onsite instruction during the pandemic. The Education Department this week said schools must remain open all five days a week, complicating some districts’ plans to limit onsite instruction because of the virus outbreak.

Key said the state doesn’t expect schools to teach all students onsite five days a week, but said that option should be available for students who need it. Some districts had planned to alternate students between remote and in-person instruction to reduce the risk of the virus’ spread.

The Arkansas Education Association called the paid leave proposal a step in the right direction, citing the fears many teachers who have classes resuming as the state’s number of confirmed cases rise.

“Educators should not have additional fear about whether or not they will be paid if they are exposed to this deadly virus and forced to quarantine to prevent the spread to their students and their families,” Carol Fleming, the group’s president, said in a statement.

The Department of Health said at least 48,039 people have tested positive for the virus, an increase of 1,011 confirmed cases since Thursday. Friday marked the state’s third-highest single-day increase in cases.

The department said 7,158 of the state’s confirmed cases are active, meaning they don’t include people who have died or recovered.

The true number of cases in Arkansas is likely higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

As of Friday, the number of people who have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, increased by six to 521. The number of people hospitalized increased by nine to 523.

Hutchinson on Friday also signed an executive order that said concern about the virus is a valid excuse to vote absentee in the November election. The order formalizes statements Hutchinson and Secretary of State John Thurston have made about absentee voting.

State law currently only allows absentee ballots due to illness, physical disability or the voter being unavoidably absent. Hutchinson issued an executive order allowing for no-excuse absentee voting in an April because of the pandemic.

Hutchinson’s order also allows election officials to start processing the absentee ballots a week earlier than usual, citing an expected increase in people voting absentee. The ballots can’t be opened and counted until 8:30 a.m. on Election Day.

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Check out more of the AP’s coronavirus coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/ademillo




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