More than 20 percent of North Carolina teachers are chronically absent from work, state officials say, costing school districts money to hire substitutes and hurting student learning.
Last school year, 22.6 percent of the state's 97,839 teachers were chronically absent, meaning they used 10 or more nonconsecutive sick days. State education officials who presented the data Wednesday attributed the high absenteeism rate in part to how some teachers no longer view it as a profession they plan to stay in for the rest of their lives.
Under state law, teachers get one day of sick leave per month to be used on days when students are in class, unlike their annual leave days. Teachers don't get paid for unused sick leave when they quit. But if they've been teaching long enough, the unused sick time is credited toward their state pension.
“If you see a career as a short-term prospect that you’re going to do for a little while till you get tired and want to do something different, sick leave can only be monetized by burning it as it’s accrued," said Tom Tomberlin, director of district human resources for the state Department of Public Instruction.
Some State Board of Education members and advisers cautioned against reading too much into the data.
"What we have here is a system that says it’s OK to take that day once a month, and then we’re going to turn around and say, ‘You’re doing that because it’s allowed and now we’re going to label you chronically absent,'" said state board member Amy White. "That’s not really fair.”
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights keeps data on teacher absenteeism. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., used the federal data to release a national study in September that said 34.6 percent of North Carolina's traditional public school teachers were chronically absent, compared to 12.8 percent of teachers in charter schools.
The Fordham report led state education officials to do their own study. But the state report used a more limited definition of chronic teacher absenteeism.
The state report found that:
▪ Chronic teacher absenteeism has risen from 21.8 percent in the 2014-15 school year. But North Carolina's rate is consistent with national averages.
▪ Chronic teacher absenteeism is lower in the western part of the state and increases as you go farther east.
▪ High-performing schools have lower rates of chronic teacher absenteeism.
▪ Forty-two percent of teachers were chronically absent at least one year out of the past three years.
Tomberlin said there's room to do further research, such as how much money is being spent by school districts to hire substitute teachers.
White, the state board member, said part of the reason for the chronic absences could be that young female teachers have to take time off to care for sick children.
Bobbie Cavinar, a state teacher of the year and adviser to the state board, said many teachers, male and female, are the primary child caregivers for their families. He said it's next to impossible to get a sub if a teacher needs to take a few hours off due to a sick child, so they wind up missing the whole day.
“The teachers are the ones often looked to as the ‘mom,’ so to speak, so whenever the kid is sick, it’s the teacher who stays out," Cavinar said.
After the presentation, state board members agreed that the issue of teacher absenteeism requires further study.
Despite the discussion, state board member Olivia Oxendine said it shouldn't be interpreted as saying teachers should never be absent. But she said it does show how important teachers are when it comes to student learning.
“Students learn less when their teachers are not there," Oxendine said.
Lisa Godwin, a state teacher of the year and state board adviser, said that if teachers feel valued, they'll value walking into the classroom each day.
“To have teachers really feel that this is a profession that’s viable for a 30-year period of time, we’ve got to change the narrative and we’ve got to do things that are innovative and push the envelope on elevating this profession and making it what it used to be in the eyes of society," she said.