More than a third of Capital Region teachers missed at least 10 days of class during the 2015-16 school year, according to federal data released last month.
Compared with the 2013-14 school year, the share of teachers missing at least 10 days ticked up slightly – rising from nearly 34 percent to 36 percent.
Educators and researchers broadly endorse the importance of teachers being there for their classes – maintaining continuity in the classroom. But personal and family illness -- many teachers have young children of their own -- and school business frequently draw teachers out of class.
“Of course I want people to come to school every day, I also want school to be year-round,” Scotia-Glenville Superintendent Susan Swartz said. “I don’t always get what I want.”
Scotia-Glenville reported 52 percent of its 179 teachers missed at least 10 days of class in 2016, up from 24 percent in 2014, according to the federal data.
Swartz said teachers in the district are granted up to 22 days of leave per year under their contract, which includes 12 sick days, five personal days and five bereavement days for the district’s 186-day school year. She said she keeps an eye on teacher absences throughout the year, adding that she doesn’t think teachers in the district are abusing their sick and leave time.
“Out of 186 days, truly you could miss 22 (days) and still not be in violation of our current agreement,” she said.
While Swartz didn’t know if the district had erroneously reported teacher absences due to school business – as some districts have – she said the uptick in absences corresponded with intensified efforts to provide teachers out-of-class training for a new districtwide literacy program. Teachers missed class as they learned a new program to take into their classes, a trade-off that can sometimes benefit students in the long run, Swartz said.
“If you truly want something to change, it’s not enough to say to people you’ve got to change this,” Swartz said, referring to the importance of preparing teachers for curricular changes within the district. “If you don’t give them the tools and let them understand and let them be a part of it, you almost certainly are dooming your change to failure.”
Districts are only supposed to report absences for teachers out on sick, personal or other types of leave, not “administratively approved leave for professional development, field trips” and other school business, according to federal guidance. But it was not clear how many districts are reporting the information improperly.
At least some area districts included absences for school business in their reported data.
Ballston Spa, for example, appeared to have one of the highest rates of teachers who were absent at least 10 days in the 2015-16 school year, according to the federal data. But district officials there told The Daily Gazette they misreported the data by including absences for school business.
The district originally reported 62 percent of its 326 teachers in 2016 missed at least 10 days of school, up from 35 percent of its teachers in 2014; but after excluding absences for school business, the rate of teachers missing 10 days in 2016 dropped to 28 percent. Even so, more than 200 of the district's teachers missed at least 10 days of class due to personal or sick leave in 2016.
Most educators, when asked about rates of teacher absenteeism, first cite teacher training, special education meetings and other school-related business.
Despite the fact that some districts may have over-reported teacher absences in both 2014 and 2016, the region’s teacher absence rates clocked in higher than national averages – around 25 percent of teachers nationwide in 2014 missed at least 10 days.
In Schenectady schools, the percentage of teachers missing at least 10 days hovered around 45 percent in both 2014 and 2016, with a slightly smaller share of teachers missing 10 days in 2016. District officials include a measure of teacher absences in the quarterly academic reports presented to the school board, but the topic has received little discussion at the board level.
The academic reports include the percentage of teachers with fewer than two absences each quarter – Superintendent Larry Spring has said that, once a teacher starts missing more than eight days in a year, it starts to have a serious impact on student learning. Schenectady's data does not include absences for school business, district spokeswoman Karen Corona said.
The number of teachers hitting the less-than-two-absences target slid in the final quarter of the year, with fewer than 10 percent of teachers at Howe Elementary School falling into that group. Other schools in the district reported around 20 percent of their teachers missing fewer than two days of school.
But Spring also said the number of teacher absences has improved over the past two years, though he acknowledged there is still more to be done.
Spring said principals are doing more to monitor teacher absences and are starting to have conversations with teachers about how they are utilizing their time off. He also said district officials are working to minimize the amount of time teachers are pulled from class for training or other work, as well as looking for ways to offer teachers support that would make it easier to come to work when they have a sick child at home or other family matters to attend to.
Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady teachers union, also highlighted the district’s effort to increase a variety of training initiatives.
“There is absolutely a lot of that, where people feel they are torn because they value the professional development, but they also realize it’s hard to be out of the classroom,” she said.
Benaquisto also said a lot of teachers are at the point in their lives when they are starting families. Since the bulk of the teacher force is female, she said, they often shoulder more of the child-rearing and other family responsibilities – like staying home with a sick child.
Students benefit most when their classroom teacher is in the classroom, she said. If teachers are gone, that has an impact on students.
“The instruction is always going to be impacted,” Benaquisto said.