A presentation from the most recent State Board of Education meeting caused pushback from some teachers. The presentation stated about 22 percent of all state teachers have been chronically absent during the last three school years, and the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) defined a teacher as chronically absent if he or she used 10 or more non-consecutive sick days in an academic year.
“When I hear that too many teachers are chronically absent, that suggests to me that teachers are part of the problem, and I don’t agree with that,” said Bryan Christopher, a teacher at Riverside High School in Durham. “In the stories that I read, the different types of absences weren’t defined, so I’m not willing to assume that absences are because teachers just didn’t want to go to work that day. They miss school to attend workshops, take care of sick family members, or any number of reasons — some of which can actually enhance their students and their practice.”
If an educator has any need to be absent on an instructional day, he or she has to use a sick day. According to Christopher, one of the core issues in the discussion of chronic teacher absenteeism is if teachers are using sick days when they are actually sick, or if they use them to do other things because that is the easiest way to get time off from work.
North Carolina teachers are entitled to multiple types of leave:
- Annual vacation leave: accrued based on the number of years a teacher is in service, starting with 1.17 days of annual leave per month for teachers with fewer than five years of experience, and growing up to 2.17 days of annual leave per month for teachers with more than 20 years of service. For instructional personnel, such as teachers, annual vacation leave cannot be used at any time students are scheduled to be in attendance except in the case of catastrophic illness or leave for new parents. Annual vacation leave can be accumulated year-to-year with a maximum of 30 days accrued.
- Personal leave: accrued at a rate of 0.2 days per month and cannot exceed two days per year. Personal leave can be carried over year-to-year with a maximum of five days accrued.
- Sick leave: accrued at a rate of one day per month, or 10 days per 10-month school year. Sick leave can be accumulated indefinitely, which means veteran teachers have the potential to accrue hundreds of sick days over the course of their teaching career. This type of leave is the most flexible as it can be used during instructional days.
Other teachers dislike the term “chronic absenteeism” to describe taking the sick days they have been allotted.
“Chronic teacher absenteeism sounds so negative,” said Kim Zeugner, a teacher at Kingswood Magnet Elementary School in Cary. “The teacher who works next door to me is on that list — she said, ‘I have missed 10 days this year.’ She’s extremely dedicated and works long hours, but she’s a single parent. If you are the main caregiver or a single parent, you have to be out when your kids are sick.”
Jennifer Mont, a teacher at Weaver Academy in Greensboro, does not think teacher absenteeism is a serious issue at her school and believes the majority of teachers miss school days for legitimate reasons, such as medical appointments or professional development.
“I’ve been in the teaching profession for 15 years and when I first started, I could attend conferences and the school had money to pay for me to go to the conference, to travel, to stay somewhere, and to pay for the substitute that I would need while I was gone. They encouraged us to do those kinds of things,” said Mont. “These days, that funding is gone, and in addition to that, there’s only so many days that our school has funding to pay for substitutes.”
If a teacher takes a personal day, Mont says, they are charged $50 to pay for a substitute, while taking a sick day comes with no such penalty. This may create an incentive for teachers to use sick days for things such as attending conferences or workshops.
Dalton Perkinson, a teacher at Garner Magnet High, says he knows teachers who have used sick days just to catch up on paperwork, grading, and curriculum development.
“We need twice the number of teacher workdays that we have now at a minimum to honor the new curriculum we are asked to teach. We have to create so much content that previously was just in a textbook,” said Perkinson. “When we are teaching towards employable skills for future endeavors, those things take time to prepare and change every two years because the skills you need are going to constantly change.”
Teachers weigh in
EducationNC asked teachers how many days of school they have missed this year thus far, and what reasons they have for taking leave. The first question of the Reach NC Voices survey screened to ensure all respondents were teachers in North Carolina. Some teachers have chosen to be identified by name, while others are only identified by location or not at all.
Teachers responded to the following question, indicating personal illness as the most common reason for missing school:
When asked about other reasons they take leave days, teachers who responded gave reasons such as attending professional development activities, scheduling medical appointments, or caring for sick parents.
Scheduling medical appointments
Many teachers said they are forced to use sick leave to schedule medical appointments, as many doctors offices do not offer appointments outside of their work hours and the school schedule does not provide flexibility.
“Since teachers are not allowed ‘comp’ time, I have to take a 1/2 day for an early afternoon appointment if there are no late appointments available. Although most teachers I work with try to get appointments for after school hours, sometimes we have to take what is available.”
—A teacher from Randolph County
“There are no other options for teachers who need to attend appointments that cannot be made after school hours. We do not have the ability to use comp time, or have a lunch break or planning break long enough to go to the dentist or the doctor, etc. There is no financial incentive to NOT use your days unless you are banking them for retirement — so why would you not use them to take care of these things?”
Personal or family illness
Teachers are allotted one sick day per month, and many said they use that allotted amount for just that purpose: personal illness, care giving for sick family members, or mental health days to rest and recharge.
“There are legitimate reasons as to why I take leave days. While some of them are for professional development, other days are for when I’m sick and in the past, they were for when my kids were sick. Some teachers don’t have the luxury of local family members to take care of sick children.”
—A teacher from Guilford County
“In the past year I have taken sick leave two times. Once to take my husband to a medical procedure and because my sister got in a car wreck and I had to help her. Usually, if I can still work, I go to work. I will not take a sick day unless I am very sick.”
—Alison Killy, Pitt County
“I need to step out of the classroom a few times a year to recharge and work with a network of educators outside of my school and district. Those days are what keep me motivated to work with students.”
—A teacher from Durham County
“I have been ‘chronically absent’ this year due to severe sinus problems for which I will be having surgery later this month (also causing me to miss work). This is not my choice. I would much rather be with my kids, but this is what I need to do for my health.”
—Christine Bouck, Durham County
“I try to save my sick days for essential doctor appointments and for when my children are sick. I teach very delicate children and there has to be someone in the classroom that can meet their needs. I’m often going in to work, sacrificing my own health, just to make sure my students’ needs are met. This year I have only used 4 sick days,and I have four children of my own.”
—Stephanie Watts, Gaston County
“I suffer from chronic migraines and only take sick leave when necessary. When I was a beginning teacher, I frequently took leave for mental health reasons as I had little support as a beginning teacher.”
Difficulties with substitute teachers
The added stress of finding a substitute teacher and creating a lesson plan for him or her is often enough to deter teachers from taking sick leave.
“I’m rarely out unless I’m ill. Leaving lesson plans for a substitute requires an in-depth amount of planning. It is much easier to be at school.”
—A teacher from Wake County
“I rarely use any kind of leave days because it creates more work for me to take leave on instructional days than to actually go to work when I do not feel well. When I am out, I cannot expect the substitute to teach a new lesson nor can I count on the substitute to stay true to my lesson plans. Thus, I end up losing instructional times which it is critical to block schedule classes.”
—A teacher from Wake County
“I have three children, two that are old enough to stay home alone. That said, when my 15-year-old had the flu, I left her home alone. I did not feel I could be out of the classroom to care for her. Never mind the headache of trying to find a sub to agree to cover so I could be out.”
—A teacher from Gaston County
Other reasons for leave
One teacher noted that her school does not cover days needed for required professional development, while another said she takes leave days to catch up on grading.
“I have not taken any leave to be out of school for personal reasons, or sick days. I have, however, been required to go to four days of professional development because of committees I serve on, or leadership positions in the school. I work when sick, because it is so hard to prepare worthwhile lessons and know that they will be administered with fidelity. It usually takes me hours of work to prepare to be gone. It is so difficult and not worth it. Having these required days out has been stressful.”
— Kim Zeugner, Wake County
“I have been known to take a sick day to plan and/or grade. Sad but true. There just isn’t enough time in our work day to do these things.”
—A teacher from Orange County
Solutions for the State Board
Some teachers offered ideas for the State Board to consider if they seek to decrease rates of teacher absenteeism.
“If I require a doctor appointment, I must take the day off work as I arrive at school before the doctors open and leave as they are closing. A solution would be to allow teachers the ability to leave one hour early or arrive one hour late to attend to personal needs when needed. My only option is take an entire day.”
“At my school and others around us, it seems many teachers rely on mental-health days to make it through each quarter. The main reason for this is that students are becoming more and more misbehaved. We lack the flexibility, resources and power to manage students behavior to a point where morale is low and teachers are forced to take days to get a break from there unreasonable teaching conditions. The first step is dealing with student discipline and giving administrators at schools the necessary support to do that. When you handle those two issues, I guarantee you will have less teacher absences.”
—Dalton Perkinson, Wake County
“There needs to be incentives for preventative health measures with diet and exercise. Daily exercise decreases stress-related physical and mental health illnesses significantly, yet most teachers are too exhausted to workout. Incentives might help, which would also decrease use of sick days.”
“Create a respectful salary scale and benefits to recruit and keep teachers. Experienced teachers maintain the positive school culture and community connections vital to a successful school.”
—Kirsten Russ, Forsyth County
The Board’s presentation was part of a preliminary discussion about whether the topic warrants additional consideration. Board members indicated interest in further discussion.
Teachers, please give your thoughts on this topic below: