Absent teachers

THE ISSUE

In 2015-16, approximately 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 only days taken for sick leave and personal leave). As staff writer Alex Geli reported in last week’s Sunday LNP, 34 percent of teachers statewide were chronically absent; nationwide, the figure was 28 percent. The School District of Lancaster and Elizabethtown Area School District had the highest numbers of chronically absent teachers — that is, those who were absent more than 10 times in the school year.

Let’s state this clearly: We are not here to bash teachers, as some commenters on LancasterOnline have charged.

It’s true that teachers have 10 or so weeks off in the summer (and despite continuing education requirements that may eat up some of that time, that’s a very nice perk).

But from mid-August to mid-June, teaching can be a grind, even for the vast majority of teachers who love their work and are dedicated to seeing their students succeed.

If teaching was a cakewalk, people would be lining up to become teachers. But, as Geli reported, Pennsylvania Department of Education data indicate that fewer people have been pursuing the 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,” he noted.

Teachers often are in their classrooms well before the yellow school buses arrive. They rarely get bathroom or coffee breaks during the school day. There is paperwork and more paperwork, grading and more grading.

And there are sick kids in their classrooms, nearly every day — sneezing, coughing, even feverish and vomiting children who are too ill to be in school, but their parents sent them anyway because child care wasn’t available.

Indeed, teachers work in germ factories. Research by Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, has found that teaching is the germiest profession.

Teaching also can be stressful, particularly for those who work with students with anger and behavioral issues. Stress, of course, can lessen one’s defenses against illness.

Most teachers — about 77 percent of them, according to U.S. Department of Education data — are women. And despite the fact that this is 2019, women continue to handle the bulk of child-rearing (and, of course, all of the child-bearing).

So when a teacher’s child becomes sick, chances are good that she, rather than her spouse, will take a sick day to care for the child.

All of this is to say: We understand there are legitimate reasons teachers take sick days.

But there are also reasons to be concerned about the percentages of teachers who are deemed chronically absent.

School districts in the county have spent millions of dollars on substitute teachers, Geli reported.

And there’s a cost to students, too.

As McCaskey High School sophomore Alysha Plaza told Geli, a class with a substitute teacher is often a waste of time, filled only with busy work.

In Elizabethtown Area School District, which had the second-highest rate of chronically absent teachers in the county in 2015-16 — 46 percent — district spokesman Troy Portser said teacher absences are unavoidable. And not as problematic as in the past.

Teachers, Portser said, are no longer the classroom’s focal point because of advances in collaborative and project-based learning.

In the School District of Lancaster — which had the highest rate of teachers who were chronically absent in 2015-16 at 50 percent — Superintendent Damaris Rau said most teachers are using their absences appropriately.

But she also said “students need to have their teachers in front of them.”

We agree.

While collaborative and project-based learning is important in preparing kids for the future, teachers still play an essential role in directing that learning. And they should be in the classroom if they can.

Robert Balfanz, education professor at Johns Hopkins University, told Education Week that students may be more likely to disengage when a teacher is frequently absent.

“If teachers aren’t attending,” he said, “it’s hard to make a convincing case that students should be attending regularly.”

And, indeed, Alysha, the McCaskey student interviewed by Geli, said that some of her classmates don’t bother showing up for class when they know a substitute is filling in for a teacher.

Then there’s the not-inconsequential matter of public perception.

People who work in other kinds of jobs don’t enjoy anything like the sick leave teachers get in a considerably shorter work year.

Current state law, Geli reported, says public school “teachers must be offered at least 10 sick days per year.”

“A review of teacher contracts throughout the county shows districts typically permit 10 sick days in addition to up to five personal days per year,” he noted.

And Pennsylvania law allows teachers to accumulate sick days from year to year — an incredible benefit many workers don’t get.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 54 percent of U.S. private industry workers get five to nine sick days a year; another 27 percent get fewer than five days. Only 17 percent get 10 to 14 days.

We know teachers who only take days off when absolutely necessary — and spend hours doing prep work for their substitutes so their days off won’t be wasted ones for students.

Teachers who are chronically absent for less than legitimate reasons should learn from their example — for the sake of their profession. But most of all for the sake of their students.