Teaching is a profession where it can be hard to take a day off.
Teachers generally don’t get vacation days like other professional workers, since they don’t have to work during school breaks, including summer. They do get sick and personal leave, but navigating teacher leave policies can be tricky: Teachers are the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement, and their presence matters. Research shows that when teachers are absent for 10 days or more over the course of a school year, student outcomes decline.
But at the same time, teachers say they’re burned out and are experiencing high levels of stress. Experts say teachers should be able to take time off when their physical and mental health requires it.
“It’s important to balance the needs of teachers with the needs of students,” said Shannon Holston, the chief of policy and programs at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. The NCTQ maintains a database of teacher leave policies in 148 districts—the 100 largest districts in the country and the largest in each state.
It has also become increasingly difficult to find enough substitute teachers to fill absences. Some teachers have said they feel guilty taking time off, especially for mental health reasons, because their work is often added to their colleagues’ plates.
Meanwhile, some policymakers have said that additional leave benefits—like paid parental leave—can be effective recruiting tools for teachers, especially during this difficult job market.
Here’s what you need to know about the landscape of teacher leave policies.
How many days a year do teachers get off?
On average, teachers get 10 sick days and three personal days a year, according to the NCTQ. These days typically roll over from year to year, so veteran teachers often accumulate large amounts of leave. Some states or districts have capped the amount of sick leave that can be rolled over, but many districts have no maximum.
Upon retirement, most teachers are paid at least partially for any unused sick days they’ve accumulated. Some districts also pay retiring teachers for unused personal leave.
Do teachers get paid maternity leave?
Unlike other developed nations, the United States does not mandate paid parental leave. The K-12 education sector is no exception, despite being dominated by women in their childbearing years. Just a handful of states, including Washington, Delaware, and New Jersey, as well as the District of Columbia, provide paid parental leave for teachers.
Not many individual school districts offer paid parental leave—less than a quarter of districts in the NCTQ database.
For the most part, teachers cobble together sick days to have some paid time off with their newborns, and sometimes supplement that with unpaid leave. Others can’t afford to take unpaid leave and have had to return to the classroom before they’re physically or emotionally ready. This problem is especially pronounced among early-career teachers, who have not had the chance to accumulate much sick leave.
Teachers can also qualify for 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected time off under the Family Medical Leave Act, which applies to employees who have been at their job for at least a year.
In recent years, paid parental leave has been viewed as a teacher recruitment and retention strategy for some policymakers and school districts, and more places have started to adopt such policies—including New York City in 2018.
But in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom and his predecessor Gov. Jerry Brown, both Democrats, vetoed bills in 2019 and 2017 that would have given teachers at least six weeks of paid parental leave. A coalition of organizations that represent school districts in the state urged the governors to veto the bills, arguing that this policy would increase the financial pressure on schools without offering any additional funding.
Do teachers get bereavement leave?
Just over half of districts in the NCTQ database have paid bereavement leave for teachers. The amount of leave given for the death of an immediate family member ranges from one to 10 days, with three to five days being the most common. Some districts that don’t offer bereavement leave say that teachers can use sick leave upon the death of a family member.
There is a growing push for school districts to include pregnancy loss in their bereavement leave policies.
How does extended medical leave work for teachers?
Extended-leave policies are mainly meant for teachers who have a serious illness, like cancer, and need to be out for extended treatment. Early-career teachers, who might not have a large reserve of sick leave stored up, are more likely to need to use this type of leave.
California and Oklahoma have laws that require teachers who exhaust their sick leave to deduct the cost of a substitute from their paychecks. In California, once teachers’ sick leave is exhausted, they are eligible for 100 days of extended sick leave, but the cost of a substitute for those days is deducted from a teacher’s paycheck. In Oklahoma, if a teacher depletes his or her store of sick leave, the state will allow an additional 20 sick days, minus the cost of a substitute.
A few other large school districts outside of Oklahoma and California have similar policies for extended sick leave, including Pasadena, Texas, and Davis, Utah.
School districts say it’s expensive for them to pay for both the cost of the substitute and the teacher’s regular salary.
What options do teachers have if they need to take more leave than they have accumulated?
Many districts have a catastrophic sick leave bank set up, where teachers can draw from a pool of donated sick days. Districts might also allow teachers to donate sick days directly to someone in need.
However, some restrictions apply. In California, the law says that teachers have to use up the 100 days of extended sick leave, minus the cost of the substitute teacher, before they can accept the donated, fully paid sick days.
Do teachers get COVID-19 leave?
It depends, but in many places, teachers are no longer getting COVID-specific paid leave. California does require school districts to provide up to 80 hours of COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave, but that law expires Sept. 30 of this year.
In March 2020, the U.S. Congress authorized a nationwide requirement for many employers, including school districts, to offer paid leave for employees dealing with COVID-19. That policy expired as 2021 began. From April to September 2021, school districts and other employers were eligible for tax credits in exchange for voluntarily offering COVID-specific paid leave.
Some school districts also used their federal COVID-19 relief funds to create a sick leave bank for employees who missed work due to the virus. District policies also varied widely, with some being contingent on employees being vaccinated against the virus or contracting COVID-19 as a result of exposure on school property.
This year, without any additional federal requirements or incentives, many school districts have stopped offering COVID-19 sick leave. Teachers who contract the virus will have to use their own sick days or take unpaid leave—or head back to work before they’re fully recovered. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends people who test positive for COVID-19 stay home for at least five days and to continue isolating if symptoms have not improved by the fifth day.
What other kinds of leave can teachers get?
According to NCTQ’s database, most large districts also offer paid leave for professional development, jury duty, military service, and assaults that took place at school and resulted in injury. (Nearly 6 percent of teachers were physically attacked by a student, according to 2015-16 federal data, the most recent available. Other surveys suggest that assaults by students have risen since the pandemic hit.)
Some districts also have more specific types of leave available to teachers.
For example, the Cumberland County, N.C., district grants teachers paid time off to represent the school at a funeral of a student or student’s parent. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district gives employees one day of paid leave to attend their child’s high school graduation. Detroit Public Schools gives employees three days off if they have lice or ringworm. The Toledo, Ohio school system gives employees five days off if they experience fire damage to their home.
“Typically there is some case that has come up, and then that makes its way into the collective bargaining process,” NCTQ’s Holston said.
What does the research say about teacher absenteeism?
Chronic teacher absenteeism both burdens school districts financially and can have negative effects on students. One study found that a 10-day teacher absence lowered student achievement in math by an amount equivalent to students being taught by a novice teacher instead of by a teacher with three to five years of experience. Those effects are especially pronounced for elementary students.
When teachers are frequently absent, it disrupts students’ routines, Holston said. And the substitute who fills in for them might not be well-versed in how to teach the subject matter, she added—especially elementary math, like fractions.
“Teachers get sick, and teachers have things happen, but ... there are strategic ways to lessen the impact [of absenteeism],” Holston said.
For example, districts can assign a long-term substitute to a classroom instead of a revolving door of daily substitutes, she said.
Some districts offer financial incentives for good attendance—for example, paying teachers for every unused personal day at the end of the year, or paying teachers a flat stipend if they take less than a designated number of days off. Some districts—like the Aldine Independent school district, which serves parts of Houston, Texas—increase their retirement contributions for employees who have excellent or perfect attendance.
NCTQ estimates that 20 percent of large districts compensate teachers for good attendance with a monetary incentive, and 10 percent reward teachers with extra days of leave they can save.