For many teachers, it’s a painful irony: They spend their days educating and caring for other people’s children, but the system isn’t set up for them to care for their own.
Few school districts offer paid parental leave. Most schools don’t accommodate teachers who are breastfeeding. And when a teacher has a miscarriage or a stillbirth, they’re often required to dip into their own sick leave—or report back to work before they’re physically or emotionally ready.
“Going back to children is really, really hard because you see what you were envisioning the whole time you were pregnant,” said Elizabeth O’Donnell, a former elementary teacher who delivered a stillborn baby girl, Aaliyah, in December 2020. “When you go back to that after you lost those dreams and those things you’ve been thinking about, it’s torture. We keep it silent, we don’t talk about it, we remember why we’re there—it’s not about us, it’s never about us.”
There’s no data about how many educators experience pregnancy loss, but it’s likely relatively common. About 77 percent of teachers are female, and many are of childbearing age. One in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, and in the United States, stillbirth—the death of a baby after 20 weeks in the womb—occurs in 1 out of 160 pregnancies.
Yet many school districts don’t include pregnancy loss in their bereavement or parental leave policies. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s database of the 100 largest districts in the country and the largest in each state, just over half of those districts offer paid bereavement leave, and fewer than a quarter offer paid parental leave. None of the bereavement policies mention pregnancy loss, and just three of the major districts explicitly mention leave for a pregnancy that does not result in a live birth—Burlington, Vt., Elk Grove, Calif., and Wichita, Kan.
And while most school employees can instead use their paid sick days or unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, people who are trying to get pregnant often try to save that time for parental leave when they eventually have a baby. It also feels invalidating to have to fight for your loss to be recognized as worthy of bereavement, educators say.
By you not giving me the time off, you’re telling me, ‘That was nobody. Get over it. Go back to work, and act like everything’s OK.’
Education Week spoke to several women who have experienced pregnancy loss while working in schools. While these experiences are difficult, the educators said they hoped sharing their stories would break down the stigmatization and silence so often associated with miscarriages and stillbirths.
When Jacquelyn Mancinelli, a high school English teacher in Voorhees Township, N.J., had a miscarriage in 2014, she returned to work the next day. A new hire, she was afraid to take sick days or even share her loss with her colleagues. Two years later, she delivered her son, Richard, at nearly 34 weeks in an emergency cesarean section. He died an hour later from fetal maternal hemorrhage.
Grief-stricken, Mancinelli didn’t even think to ask if she qualified for bereavement leave.
“My whole world had been turned upside down,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for anything to support myself.”
Mancinelli, who now has two healthy daughters, started an organization called Start Healing Together last year to support teachers who have experienced infertility and pregnancy loss. Already, eight schools have established chapters—mostly in New Jersey, but also in New York, Maryland, and Nebraska.
The group’s main initiative has been to encourage teachers’ unions to incorporate language in their contracts that explicitly includes pregnancy loss and failed fertility treatments in district bereavement leave policies. So far, six local teachers’ unions in the Garden State—with support from the New Jersey Education Association—are pursuing this language in contract negotiations. It’s also actively being considered by local unions in Oklahoma, California, Rhode Island, and Indiana.
Having this language clearly enshrined in a contract will allow teachers to take time for themselves after a loss, instead of having to fight with the human resources department at their school, Mancinelli said.
“All of this is so personal, but when you need that support, it’s helpful to have it explicitly in the contract so you don’t have to demand it—it’s available to you to take,” Mancinelli said.
‘This is an equity issue’
Mancinelli introduced a measure at the National Education Association’s annual representative assembly this summer that called for the union to share sample language state and local affiliates can include in their contracts.
The language says: “A pregnant employee who suffers a pregnancy loss (including, but not limited to, chemical pregnancy, ectopic pregnancy, molar pregnancy, miscarriage, [termination for medical reasons], stillbirth, neonatal loss) shall be eligible for bereavement leave. An employee who suffers a failed fertility treatment (including, but not limited to, [intrauterine insemination, or IUI], [assisted reproductive technology], surrogacy loss) shall be eligible for bereavement leave. Employees must submit bereavement documentation upon request.”
The measure passed, with 84 percent of delegates voting in favor.
Petal Robertson, the secretary-treasurer at the New Jersey Education Association, said she’s already heard from several leaders of unions in other states who are interested in learning more about the language.
“This is an equity issue—it’s a necessity for our families, our mothers, and even our fathers,” Robertson said. “We’re in a system where the expectation of the educator is always to sacrifice themselves and to bounce back from whatever the tragedy might be, and with this work, we’re asking that educators put themselves first and put their needs first.”
“I used to think [teaching] is a great job for being a mom. ... But it’s not like that.
Mancinelli said some district staff have argued that conditions like ectopic pregnancy—in which a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus, causing the pregnancy to no longer be viable—should qualify for medical, rather than bereavement, leave. Others have proposed that bereavement leave should count for pregnancy loss only after a certain number of weeks.
She’s hopeful that sharing educators’ stories will help inform and sway districts. A long-standing culture of silence and stigma around miscarriages, particularly those in the early weeks of pregnancy, has only recently started to change.
Last year, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, both Democrats, introduced legislation that would ensure employers provide at least three days of paid leave for workers after a pregnancy loss, failed fertility treatment, a failed adoption arrangement, or other diagnoses affecting fertility. In both the Senate and the House, the bills were referred to committee without a vote.
This summer, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, signed into law a bill that mandates that employers—including school districts—provide two weeks of unpaid leave for workers who experience pregnancy loss, failed adoptions, unsuccessful reproductive procedures, and other diagnoses affecting fertility. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, also recently signed a bill that gives three days of paid bereavement leave after a miscarriage or a stillbirth to people who work for a public college, a local government, or the state—but school districts are not included in the new law.
Similar bills have been introduced in at least 10 other states this year and last, said Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization focused on sexual and reproductive health. Major cities, such as Pittsburgh, Boston, and Portland, Ore., have also recently enacted similar policies.
Bereavement leave is already fairly common among private employers, and a growing number of companies, including Goldman Sachs and Pinterest, are starting to expand their policies to include pregnancy loss.
“I think people are beginning to realize that pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes are sometimes very complicated,” Nash said. “People have the sense that once you’re pregnant, and you have a wanted pregnancy, at the end you have a baby—and that’s not always the case.”
These types of policies could become more controversial in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion. At the NEA meeting, one delegate opposed the contract language, fearing it would give personhood to a fetus.
Nash said many of the bills are tailored specifically to miscarriages and stillbirths, rather than the more general umbrella of pregnancy loss, which could apply to abortion. Boston, Portland, Ore., and Pittsburgh do include abortion in their policies, which has sparked criticism from conservatives, including former Vice President Mike Pence.
Women share stories that are all too common
On the first day of school this year, Kathryn Vaughn, who was almost nine weeks pregnant, started bleeding. She went to the doctor, who confirmed that she was experiencing a miscarriage and prescribed her medication to help the process along.
The news was devastating: Vaughn, an elementary art teacher in rural Tennessee, had welcomed her first child last year and was eager to expand her family again. But she wasn’t able to take time to process the loss or physically recuperate. Instead, Vaughn went to work the next day, even though she was still actively miscarrying.
“I didn’t anticipate how much physical pain [there would be], and then dealing with all the blood,” she said. “It’s like you’re going through a labor, contractions, while you’re trying to smile at children—it’s monstrous.”
Vaughn had drained her banked sick leave last year to scrape together a couple weeks of maternity leave. At the start of this school year, she received an additional nine sick days and three personal days, but she didn’t want to use any of them for the miscarriage: “I would like to try again to have another baby and would like to have more than just nine days with them.”
“I used to think [teaching] is a great job for being a mom—you’re going to work the same hours as your kids, everyone will understand what it’s like, most teachers are wives and mothers, too,” Vaughn said. “But it’s not like that.”
This spring, May Saengpraseuth Alirad, an elementary social worker in Chicago, found out that she was experiencing a “missed miscarriage” at eight weeks pregnant, meaning that her baby was no longer alive, but her body had not yet recognized the loss. Still experiencing pregnancy symptoms, she continued going to work, crying every day.
“There were times when I had to run into the closet to cry—it was just so traumatic for me,” she said.
A few weeks later, her water broke. Over the weekend, she experienced contractions and eventually expelled the pregnancy tissue at home.
Alirad went to work the next day, but was too distraught to focus. She took the rest of the week off to grieve and plan a memorial service for her baby, whom she named Angel, and assumed the time off would be covered by Chicago Public Schools’ bereavement leave policy, which covers the death of a child. But her manager called her to tell her that the policy didn’t apply to miscarriages.
“It was the invalidation of it,” Alirad said. “By you not giving me the time off, you’re telling me, ‘That was nobody. Get over it. Go back to work, and act like everything’s OK.’ I couldn’t. I couldn’t act like everything was so OK. I was so distraught; I was crying every day.”
Alirad took a leave of absence for two weeks through short-term disability. During that time, she began to heal. By the end of the two weeks—the amount of time CPS educators can take for bereavement leave for the death of a child—she was able to get through the day without crying.
“I just needed the 10 days that I should have gotten,” Alirad said. “I needed that time off, I needed to process. I needed to be home with my family. I needed to sleep.
“When you find out that you’re pregnant and you see those two lines, your whole brain rewires itself. You’re planning now for a baby. When you find out you lost your baby, you’re … grieving the future that you’ll never have. The future that you’d have with this baby that you’ve never met but you love so much already.”
Alirad is now five months pregnant with her “rainbow baby.” But because she had a prior medical leave last fall and then took an additional leave of absence for her miscarriage in the spring, her short-term disability insurance will not renew in time for the birth. She’s been told she only has one week left of short-term disability to use after birth instead of 12. The decision feels like another slap in the face, Alirad said, because if she had gotten to use bereavement leave after her miscarriage, her short-term disability would have reset in time to use it for a maternity leave.
Some educators find comfort in advocacy
After her miscarriage, Alirad started an online petition on change.org, calling for local, state, and federal governments to include pregnancy loss in their bereavement leave policies. The petition, to date, has received nearly 47,000 signatures.
In a statement, a CPS spokesperson said the district offers a competitive benefits package with a multitude of options for educators.
“While our bereavement policy does not directly address miscarriages, many of our CPS employees use a variety of options available to them under our current CPS benefit package to take time off during difficult circumstances,” the statement said. “As always, CPS strives to treat our colleagues with compassion and ensure they have the resources available to heal and recover from physical and mental health issues.”
Still, Alirad doesn’t want any other parent to experience the pain and invalidation she felt. She plans to work with politicians, like Duckworth, to continue her advocacy. It brings her peace to imagine that Angel, her unborn child, is proud of her.
Last year, O’Donnell, who taught 1st grade in Washington, D.C., was denied paid family leave after her stillbirth. She made headlines for sharing her story, in which she said that she had asked for eight weeks of family leave to recover physically but was told that she wasn’t eligible since she was “only caring for [her]self.”
O’Donnell’s story has since inspired the city council to expand its bereavement leave policy to offer two weeks of paid time off to employees who lose a child under the age of 21, including stillbirths. The city government also clarified that stillbirths or miscarriages would be eligible for six weeks of medical leave.
“My goal was met in terms of making sure this doesn’t happen to people after me,” O’Donnell said. Still, she has since quit teaching and is suing the District of Columbia Public Schools and the D.C. Office of Human Rights over the denial of her ability to use paid family leave.
A DCPS spokesperson declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
O’Donnell is continuing her advocacy outside of education. She started Aaliyah in Action, a nonprofit that sends self-care packages for families who have experienced stillbirths or infant death. She also is a founding member of PUSH for Empowered Pregnancy, a nonprofit that works to lower the rates of preventable stillbirths.
“This is getting me through,” she said.
In addition to the push for expanded bereavement leave in teacher contracts, Mancinelli and her colleague George Kemery are developing resources for administrators on how to support staff who have experienced pregnancy loss, and toolkits for both administrators and teachers themselves for announcing a pregnancy loss to students in age-appropriate ways. They also work with grieving educators so they have a support system in place before they return to the classroom after loss.
This work “seems commonsense to me, but I do this in honor of my son,” Mancinelli said. “One of the quotes that we associate with him is a song lyric—‘You are meant for amazing things.’ And that is why I do this. I can’t parent him like I parent my living children, so this is what I do.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2022 edition of Education Week as Inside the Push to Include Miscarriages And Stillbirths in Teachers’ Leave Policies