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The Biden administration is expected to call for paid family and medical leave in its next major plan aimed at supporting families and revitalizing an economy devastated by the pandemic. It must not leave public school teachers behind.

Before the pandemic, many teachers did not have access to paid leave. A large number had to piece together a handful of paid sick days and unpaid leave in order to take time off to recover from childbirth, bond with a new infant, tend to an ailing family member or care for themselves.

For teachers who did have paid leave, access to the benefit was a result of good luck — they were in the right place, with the right employer, at the right time. Still, even when paid leave was available, some teachers didn’t know that they were eligible, fully understand their rights to the benefit or know how to claim it.

Now, during the pandemic, most teachers, like most U.S. workers, still lack guaranteed access to paid leave exclusively for family and medical needs, and have been leaving the profession in droves as a result of heightened COVID-related stress.

In an email, President Becky Pringle of the National Education Association shared, “We are in the midst of a public health crisis, and the repercussion of a sick student goes well beyond the sniffles. To build back better, we must enact policies that support working people and their families” — including “a permanent, national, paid family and medical leave program.”

Providing access to such a program could be the key to retaining educators.

Related: When schools reopen, we may not have enough teachers

In the United States, the convoluted rules governing teachers’ access to paid family and medical leave currently resemble those of a complicated board game specifically designed to make winning nearly impossible. To help teachers, we must rewrite the rules of the paid leave game altogether.

Right now, teachers must navigate a patchy landscape full of gaps and inconsistencies. Whether or not teachers have paid leave depends on whether their city, county or state offers the benefit, whether those laws exempt public sector workers like teachers and whether they are considered state employees. For instance, teachers are covered by state paid leave laws in New Jersey, the District of Columbia and Washington State but are excluded from the paid leave law in California .

If teachers are not covered by a state law, their access to paid leave depends on whether they can collectively bargain for the benefit, explains Shannon Holston, chief of policy and programs at the National Council on Teacher Quality, or NCTQ.

But Texas, Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia explicitly prohibit public school teachers and other public sector workers from collective bargaining, according to NCTQ’s analysis.

Missouri, Wisconsin and Indiana allow collective bargaining — but not for paid leave.

And, in states, cities and counties that do not have paid leave laws and ban collective bargaining, teachers have to rely on individual school districts to provide the benefit contractually. Paid leave is not guaranteed.

As schools begin to reopen, vaccination rates rise, cases drop and people eagerly call for a return to normal, it’s important to remember that returning to normal isn’t good enough for teachers.

In the U.S., only 21 percent of the civilian workforce have paid leave; and the U.S. is the only OECD country that does not have at least some version of a national paid maternity leave policy for mothers and birthing parents.

Women and people of color suffer the most under the current rules of the paid-leave game, which increases gender and racial inequality.

In the absence of paid leave, millions of workers, including teachers, must use whatever resources they have to create and afford time off for care, often taking on even more stress in the process.

When she was about to deliver her second child, Sarah Harriott was just one year into her first full-time position as a public school teacher in South Florida. She worried she could lose her job if she took time off.

After giving birth, Harriott used the nine days of paid sick leave she had accumulated and added nine more days of unpaid leave. Harriott wishes she’d had more than three and a half weeks off. “My child wasn’t even a month old. . . . I was happy to be back, but I worried about how my baby was doing and not being there.”

Studies show that having 26 weeks of paid leave after childbirth benefits both the mother and child and is associated with decreases in postpartum depression, longer durations of breastfeeding and stronger infant attachment and development.

Having adequate paid leave also correlates with a decrease in infant mortality, increased infant wellness visits and timely immunizations.

Former District of Columbia public school teacher Mary Laura Calhoun was lucky enough to access paid leave when she needed it most. When Calhoun gave birth to her daughter in 2015, she had access to the eight weeks of paid family leave offered to all D.C. public employees.

But Calhoun had a traumatic birth experience and needed more time to recover. Fortunately, she gave birth during the summer break, and had accumulated 40 paid sick days — which gave her time to care for her newborn daughter and recover from a C-section.

Without those 19 weeks of paid leave, Calhoun says, “I may have just chosen to quit.”

If there is one ray of hope stemming from the pandemic, it’s that teachers qualified for emergency paid leave from April to December 2020 through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Despite its exclusion of millions of workers and limited applicability, the provision challenged the status quo. It proved that paid leave for all could work, and that teachers could use it.

As schools begin to reopen, vaccination rates rise, cases drop and people eagerly call for a return to normal, it’s important to remember that returning to normal isn’t good enough for teachers. Teachers need paid leave.

Jahdziah St. Julien is a research associate at the Better Life Lab (BLL) at New America. She works at the intersection of gender, race and social policies.

This story about teachers and paid family and medical leave was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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