Although the immediate urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly diminished, allowing schools throughout the country to resume normal operations, data indicates that teacher absences have continued to rise in its wake. Teacher absenteeism is not a new phenomenon, but more than 1 in 5 U.S. schools have reported that it has gotten “worse” since the pandemic.
According to a May 2022 survey by the U.S. Department of Education, “teacher absences have increased compared to prior school years…more than three-quarters of public schools reported it is more difficult to get substitutes than it was before the pandemic…[and] nearly three-quarters of public schools are frequently relying on administrators, non-teaching staff, and teachers on their free periods to cover classes.”
Many instances of teacher absence fall inside the norm; as with any job, every worker needs to take unexpected time off occasionally. Teachers, unlike most employees, aren’t allocated traditional vacation days; rather, they are expected to take their “vacations” when school is not in session (even if they may be working hard preparing new lessons and engaging in professional and personal development during these times).
However, districts do grant teachers a certain number of days that they can take off for illness, emergency, bereavement, and/or personal reasons; the amount of days varies by district. For example, Hartford, CT, offers a generous 25 days of “general leave” to all its teachers, while Dallas, TX, offers 10 days.
Data from a few years ago shows that, on average, teacher absences stayed fairly steady at a rate of around 9–11 days per year. According to The National Council on Teacher Equality in their research paper Roll Call: The importance of teacher attendance, “On average, public school teachers were in the classroom 94 percent of the [2012–2013] school year, missing nearly 11 days out of a 186-day school year (the average school year length).” However, the current rate of teacher absenteeism varies widely across schools and districts, with some schools reporting much higher rates of teacher absences.
Chronic teacher absenteeism, defined by the Roll Call report as missing 18 or more days in the school year, can be more damaging to a school’s culture and to student learning.
Teachers need to be away from the classroom for a variety of reasons, including illness, maternity leave (as teaching is still predominantly a female profession), bereavement, professional development, and job-related stress. Taking an average of 11 days for such reasons isn’t unusual, as demonstrated by data gathered long before the pandemic. It’s when absences start to spike that school leaders may need to evaluate both how to manage teacher absenteeism as well as its impact on student well-being and academic achievement.
Teaching is a demanding profession, and absentee rates in education reflect that. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research: “Previous studies suggest absence rates for teachers in the U.S. [are] on the order of 5%...By comparison, ostensibly similarly measured rates of absenteeism due to sickness average less than 3% in the U.S. workforce as a whole.”
Why are teacher absences higher than for the average worker? Reasons may include:
When a teacher is absent, students may miss key instruction, which can affect their understanding of the material and ability to perform well on exams or assignments. Substitute teachers, while often well qualified, may not be as effective in delivering instruction as the regular classroom teacher, which can lead to confusion or gaps in students' learning.
“As common sense suggests, teacher attendance is directly related to student outcomes: the more teachers are absent, the more their students’ achievement suffers,” says the Roll Call research paper. “When teachers are absent 10 days, the decrease in student achievement is equivalent to the difference between having a brand new teacher and one with two or three years more experience.”
While many research studies have failed to prove that there is a statistically significant drop in reading scores that can be directly attributed to teacher absenteeism, other studies have shown that achievement in math has borne the brunt: “10 additional days of teacher absence are associated with a decline between 1.7% to 3.3% of a standard deviation in math achievement.”
It's also worth noting that teacher absenteeism can have non-academic impacts on students, such as reduced motivation, decreased attendance, and increased behavior problems. Students may be inclined to take substitute teachers less seriously, thus leading them to skip class or tune out.
Teacher absences don’t affect all students equally. Research has found that chronic teacher absenteeism can be more prevalent in and is more detrimental to schools that serve high-poverty or minority students. In 2022, EdWeek reported that “schools serving high concentrations of students of color were particularly likely to see teachers miss more than 10 percent of school days in 2021-22.”
A report by the Center for American Progress found that teacher absenteeism is associated with lower academic achievement, and that the negative impact is more pronounced in high-poverty schools. And a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that teacher absenteeism has a greater negative impact on student achievement in schools with high percentages of low-income and minority students. The study indicated that reducing teacher absenteeism could significantly improve academic outcomes for these students.
These studies suggest that chronic teacher absenteeism can have a disproportionate impact on students from low-income and minority backgrounds, highlighting the need for targeted interventions to address this issue in high-needs schools.
Using an effective absence management system to record and track teacher absences can help school and district leaders to ensure accountability, re-allocate resources, and assign necessary substitutes or “extra duty” staff to cover classrooms.
It can also help them to identify patterns that lead to increased time spent away from the classroom. For example, do a few teachers who are chronically absent lead to a “snowball effect” in which additional teachers suddenly feel that they, too, deserve to take some time off? Do more absences crop up after a period of high-stakes testing or other stressful periods? Do teachers who have to commute long distances fail to show up during inclement weather? These patterns can provide insights into how to better meet the needs of your teaching staff so that they don’t feel compelled to take excessive time off.
Overall, when teachers are supported through efforts such as professional development, mentorship, and wellness coaching, chronic absences may become less likely—and student motivation, engagement, and achievement will ultimately benefit.
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