McCaskey High School sophomore Alysha Plaza walked into her algebra class on a recent Friday afternoon and instantly assumed the period would be a cakewalk.
Alysha and her classmates had a substitute teacher. Their objective: Complete a worksheet with a handful of math problems on it.
Or, as Alysha called it: “Busy work.”
The worksheet took only 20 minutes to finish, so students chatted or caught up on homework until the bell rang about a half-hour later.
“I don’t think it’s worthwhile, personally,” Alysha said of the typical class period with a substitute teacher.
Alysha’s experience is more common than one might think. Teachers are absent across the county every day. And many are chronically absent, meaning they miss more than 10 days of the 180-day school year.
In 2015-16, about 36 percent of Lancaster County’s 4,888 public school teachers were chronically absent, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s biannual Civil Rights Data Collection.
The data set includes days taken for sick leave and personal leave, not for professional development, field trips or other district or other off-campus activities with students.
Statewide, 34 percent of teachers were chronically absent. Nationwide, it was 28 percent.
County school districts have consequently doled out millions of dollars for substitute teachers — who are in short supply and sometimes lack traditional teacher certifications — to take over classroom instruction.
For students like Alysha, that means more busy work and less learning.
The effect of teacher absenteeism
“The fundamental concern is that it is very hard for kids to learn when teachers aren’t in the classroom,” said David Griffith, a senior research and policy associate for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-focused think tank based in Washington, D.C.
Griffith authored a report in 2017 comparing chronic teacher absenteeism rates for traditional public schools versus charter schools.
While teachers deserve time off, he said in a phone interview, evidence suggests they’re missing more time than is necessary. And that ends up handcuffing the students left behind in class.
Each teacher absence equals about a day of learning lost, Griffith said. But it doesn’t stop there.
Sometimes a substitute isn’t available, so another teacher is asked to cover a classroom. That’s typically during the period in which the teacher prepares for his or her own class.
“If a person’s gone all day, it might be one or two or three (teachers filling in),” Griffith said. “Suddenly, we’re talking about hundreds of students, all of whom are potentially impacted by one teacher’s absence.”
Wanted: substitute teachers
Teachers in the county do have to fill in for their colleagues from time to time, said JR Godwin, vice president of business affairs for Substitute Teacher Service.
STS contracts with school districts across Pennsylvania. That list includes 14 Lancaster County school districts and the Lancaster County Career & Technology Center, according to the STS website.
As of March 1, it has filled 35,000 positions this school year with a pool of 2,489 substitutes serving Lancaster County, Godwin said.
Using what Godwin said is an average of $120 per substitute, that’s $4.2 million local school districts have spent on substitutes since August.
But there’s good news: Substitute requests are granted at one of the highest rates in Lancaster County, which touts an 89 percent fill rate, Godwin said. Citing data from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, he said the average fill rate statewide is 75 percent.
The state’s teacher shortage is to blame for why some positions go unfilled, Godwin said.
Pennsylvania Department of Education data show fewer people are pursuing the teacher profession in recent years. There was a 64 percent drop in teacher certifications issued by the state department of education between 2012-13 and 2017-18 — from 18,957 to 6,918.
That has forced services like STS to partially rely on emergency permits, which substitutes can obtain through a guest teacher program, to recruit substitutes.
The program allows individuals with bachelor’s degrees to complete an online training program through the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 and commissioned by the state department of education
Of 2,489 substitutes in Lancaster County, 715, or 29 percent, are guest teachers, Godwin said.
Substitutes are, indeed, hard to come by, said School District of Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau. That’s why she tells her principals to treat substitutes “like gold.”
That’s also why Lancaster has assigned to each school at least one building substitute: one at each elementary school, two at each middle school and four at the high school campus.
Building substitutes are hired through STS and often serve as long-term substitutes, district spokeswoman Kelly Burkholder said.
“Having a building substitute that’s there every day guarantees that you have someone who knows the culture of the school and probably knows that students of the school,” Rau said.
The value of having someone familiar in front of students, particularly at a high-poverty school district, “can’t be overstated,” Rau said. While a regular classroom teacher is preferred, she said, a building substitute is the next best thing.
School District of Lancaster had the highest rate of teachers who were chronically absent in 2015-16 at 50 percent, federal civil rights biannual data show.
Rau said 99 percent of teachers use their absences appropriately.
“We always are concerned with teacher absenteeism because our students need to have their teachers in front of them,” she said. “But we also don’t believe they’re abusing their time off.”
Elizabethtown Area School District had the second-highest rate at 46 percent in 2015-16, according to the federal data. District spokesman Troy Portser said the district doesn’t consider it a problem because most absences are unavoidable.
The district can’t control situations such as illness, child birth and jury duty — nor does it want to, Portser said.
When a teacher is absent, he added, it doesn’t have the same effect it had years ago. Teachers, he said, are no longer the classroom’s focal point, because of advances in collaborative and project-based learning.
“When they’re absent, it doesn’t mean the instruction ends, because the kids are just as critical in instruction now as the teachers,” he said.
Chris Lilienthal, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, echoed Porter’s remarks.
Most teachers want to be in the classroom every day, he said, but sometimes a sick or personal day is necessary.
“We think that a teacher shouldn’t have to be in a situation where she has to think, ‘Should I go to work and potentially transmit an illness to (my) students or stay home and get better?’ ” Lilienthal said.
Many teachers are often caregivers for their families, he added, so when a child is sick or a day care closes, a teacher should be allowed to take off.
PSEA supports current state law, which says teachers must be offered at least 10 sick days per year. Unused sick days, the law states, may accumulate from year to year without limit.
A review of teacher contracts throughout the county show districts typically permit 10 sick days in addition to up to five personal days per year.
Unused personal days often carry over from year to year, too, but they're capped after a handful of unused days — typically between five and 10 depending on district.
Critics like Griffith, however, say Pennsylvania’s generous sick leave policy is “unreasonable.”
Griffith recommends capping sick and personal days for teachers and limiting unused sick days that carry over. Adding paid maternity leave or child care benefits also isn’t a bad idea, he said.
The state should also start incentivizing teacher attendance as they do student attendance according to its Every Student Succeeds Act plan, Griffith said.
Perhaps then schools might notice an overlap between teacher attendance and student attendance.
Alysha, the McCaskey student, said when her classmates know a substitute is filling in for their teacher, sometimes they don’t show up.
“I think partly it’s because it’s not like quality time. It’s just busy work,” Alysha said. “And so I guess they’d rather spend their time doing something else.”