'Chronic' Warwick teacher absenteeism is at 39%
Warwick teacher absenteeism is on a par with teacher absenteeism in public schools statewide, which runs ahead of teacher absenteeism nationally and about twice the absenteeism of charter schoolteachers.
According to data requested of the Warwick school administration, 39 percent of Warwick teachers were “chronically absent,” with 10 or more absences in the last academic year. Excluded from this data are professional/workshop days, conference days and field trips.
This compares to 38 percent teacher absenteeism in public schools elsewhere across the state and 17 percent absenteeism in Rhode Island charter schools, according to a report released last month by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Nationally, the report found 28 percent of teachers in traditional public schools are chronically absent compared with 10 percent of charter schoolteachers.
Digging into the Warwick numbers, 48 teachers were absent for 60 or more school days; 32 were absent for 70 or more days; 19 were absent for 80 or more days and 11 were absent for 90 or more days. In total, 867 Warwick teachers took 12,292 days of sick leave last academic year.
“Why would we hold schools to account for the attendance of their students but not of their own teachers? How can anyone expect students to learn when their teachers are absent? Like everyone else, educators occasionally have to miss work. They get the flu, too. And anyone who has never actually taught would be wise not to underestimate the challenges that teachers face, especially in high-poverty schools and those with many at-risk children,” Amber M. Northern and Michael J. Petrilli write in an introduction to the Fordham study.
The study finds that school districts with collective bargaining agreements experience higher rates of absenteeism than charter schools that generally operate without collective bargaining agreements.
“Overall, these results suggest that the high chronic absenteeism rates we observe for teachers in traditional public schools are at least partly attributable to the generous leave policies enshrined in state laws and local collective bargaining agreements—and that the chronic absenteeism rate in many places could be reduced without exploiting teachers,” reads the report.
The study also found that, on average, US workers are entitled to approximately 8 days of sick leave per year, observing, “Yet, despite the fact that the typical school year is only 180 days (or about 20–25 percent shorter than the typical work year in other industries), teachers in traditional public schools are entitled to an average of 12 sick and personal days.”
Under the teacher contract that expired in August 2015, Warwick teachers are entitled to 90 paid sick days a year. That provision of the contract has been a bone of contention with some members of the School Committee, with Eugene Nadeau especially vocal. According to Superintendent Philip Thornton, the number of paid sick days was an issue raised during interest arbitration hearings.
“We do have an absenteeism problem,” Thornton said Wednesday. He said the issue of absenteeism and sick days was raised during interest arbitration and that he is reserving comments until the final arbitration report is rendered.
The final report of the arbitrator is expected to be released soon, but according to the “leanings” provided the administration and union, the 90 sick leave days remain unchanged.
In a statement, Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh said, “Although the 90-day sick leave provision is a controversial number of sick days, it is not out of line with other districts. Coventry has 80, and Cranston has 75 with the ability to have 75 more if someone needs those days.”
“In Warwick, the number of sick days prevents the district from firing someone who is catastrophically ill. Also, teachers in Warwick have to pay for their sick days at the end of the year. The average number of teacher absences a year is just that – an average. That number includes teachers who are never absent and those who are absent due to serious, long-term illnesses.”
Katherine J. Duncanson, Executive Director of Human Resources for Warwick Schools cautioned, “Not everyone who takes it [sick time] abuses it.” She noted that teachers recovering from illnesses or undergoing treatments might have compromised immune systems, “and don’t want to be in front of a classroom full of kids.” She noted that teachers get “legal days” which would cover jury duty and other legal matters as well as five bereavement days for immediate family members, three days for grandparents and one day for other relatives. Maternity leave is six weeks from delivery and eight weeks after a cesarean delivery.
Thornton said the department closely monitors teacher absences, noting that chronic teacher absenteeism runs higher than absenteeism among administrators, which was 12 percent for last year. Warwick Independent School Employee chronic absenteeism – 10 or more days a year – is 41 percent. WISE employees receive 15 sick days per year. They can accumulate unused sick time up to 115 days. WISE members are paid out for 30 percent of the accumulated sick leave at retirement at a rate of $30/day. For example, if an employee has accumulated 100 sick days at the time of his/her retirement, he/she would be paid $30 for 33 1/3 days ($999).
“The most important thing in school is having the student and the teacher in school. Substitutes [teachers] are not the same thing,” Thornton said.
According to the Fordham study, “Several studies have examined the relationship between teacher absenteeism and pupil achievement and found a strong connection. In fact, there appears to be a one-to-one relationship: a ten-day increase in teacher absence results in at least a ten-day learning loss for students.”