UPDATE | Union president defends West Virginia teacher absences
The president of a West Virginia teachers union is defending educators who use days off that they’ve earned, our media partner
“Teachers get sick too,” West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said during a Monday appearance on MetroNews “Talkline.”
Lee said those teachers have responsibilities at home like other residents.
“Many of them have aging parents they are caring for. They (WV teachers) are 70 percent female so when they have a baby they are going to have to miss,” Lee said.
Numbers released last week by the state Department of Education, which didn’t include maternity leave, showed 53 percent of teachers missed more than 10 days of work last year while 11 percent missed more than 20 days. It’s the latter number that Lee said he wants to get a closer look at.
“We’re not talking about the teacher that has to miss because they have the flu. We’re really honing in on that 11 percent and that’s where I have to get more information. I have to see if those are consecutive days or illnesses. There are reasons for that,” Lee said.
Lee said like in any other workplace there are some who abuse the system.
“You deal with those individuals on an individual basis,” Lee said. “You don’t paint the whole system as bad or abusing it because maybe a few are.”
Teachers get 15 days a year. State lawmakers approved an incentive earlier this year that will pay teachers $500 at the end of the school year if they only absent a handful of days. Lee said Monday that’s probably not enough to move the needle on the numbers. Lee wants lawmakers to return to a pre-2015 plan that allowed teachers to exchange their banked days for benefits like extra service time.
“If they were hired after 2015 they can’t save their days and use them for anything,” he said.
Lee said the numbers also have to do with what teachers are paid. He said teachers would likely take more days off until they are paid what “they deserve where we can attract people into the profession.”
Lee said the millions of dollars spent on substitute teachers each year also has to do with teacher vacancies not filled because of low pay.
State lawmakers have approved separate five percent pay raises for teachers each of the last two years.
More than half of West Virginia teachers missed more than 10 days of school last year, according to research by the state Department of Education.
Across the state, 52.75 percent of teachers missed more than 10 days, according to the research reported by our media partner
The prior year’s number was 52.46. The year before that it was 51.44 and in 2016 it was 50.83.
“The impact is that kids need to be in their classrooms and teachers need to be teaching in those classrooms for student achievement rates to go up,” state Superintendent Steve Paine said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
Paine said he wanted to make the point that teaching is a very challenging vocation.
“They care. It’s a hard job, and very stressful,” he said. “The second thing is, they’re missing too much school.”
The Department of Education released to MetroNews a spreadsheet showing the attendance rate and absences.
On any given day, 94 percent of teachers are in classrooms, according to the report. That number was reached by dividing the number of days teachers attended school by the total number of possible days they could have attended.
But over the course of the school year, each daily absence adds up for teachers who aren’t present.
The percentage of teachers who missed more than 20 days was 10.9 percent, according to the report.
“That is too many as well. However, we need to find out the reasons,” Paine said. “The bottom line is, we’re all missing too much school.”
When annual Balanced Scorecard results were released for student performance last month, they showed that 38 percent of schools in West Virginia did not meet a standard for student attendance.
No high school in West Virginia fully meets or exceeds the math standard, and no high school in West Virginia exceeds the standard for English/language arts.
Besides affecting instruction in the classroom, the teacher absences affect county school system budgets.
Monongalia County reported spending $2.4 million to hire substitute teachers during the 2018-19 school year.
Berkeley County spent $4.3 million. Kanawha County spent $3.7 million.
Teachers in West Virginia operate under 200-day contracts. They are allotted 12 days of leave that might also be sick days plus three personal days. A newly-passed education bill bumped that up to four personal days.
When the Department of Education crunched the numbers, it removed absences for reasons such as field trips, required professional training days, jury duty, long-term health leave (including maternity leave or days that were used to donate to another employee, clarified Kristin Anderson, spokeswoman for the state agency.
Paine said there might be a variety of reasons for missing school.
“You know, there are obligations,” he said. “Teachers get sick. They have tremendous stress levels. And they also have to care for family members when somebody is ill.”
Over the years, some incentives for not cashing leave have been taken away. For example, the ability to bank days to cash out as retirement or healthcare benefits.
“The new ones coming into the profession feel like those are their days, their benefits,” Paine said. “They get those 15 days every single year. They don’t see the value necessarily of seeing those days accumulate.”
The omnibus education bill that passed a few months ago included a $500 attendance bonus for teachers who miss fewer than four days. Paine said the state needs to determine if that has an effect.
“I want to acknowledge and commend the Legislature for trying to put an incentive in there,” he said. “What I’m hearing is that’s not much of an incentive at all.”
Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, said he still needs to learn more about how the numbers were compiled.
He acknowledged that results are better in schools when teachers are in the classroom. But he described a range of potential reasons for absences, including illness or taking care of a sick family member.
“Teachers are around kids all day. Kids come to school with colds and bacteria and viruses, and teachers are going to get it,” Lee said.
Lee said he would like to know more about the effects of removing incentives to build up unused days.
“I want to know the percentage of teachers hired after 2015 who can’t use their days. I want to get the percentage of those teachers that are missing more than 10 days because they don’t have an incentive to use their unused days for anything,” he said.
He suggested school systems should work with individual teachers who miss significant time from the classroom to improve attendance.
“Teaching is a difficult job. The stress and things teacher have to go through is difficult,” Lee said. “If it’s being abused, you deal with those who are abusing it, individually. I would contend that most educators are not abusing.”