It’s shaping up to be a bad cold and flu season this year, but many teachers and, especially, principals are hesitant to use their sick days amid staffing shortages.
A new EdWeek Research Center survey of a nationally representative sample of teachers, principals, and district leaders found that about a quarter of educators say they’ve gotten sick more this school year, compared to fall 2019. The survey was in the field from Oct. 27 to Nov. 9, right at the start of the cold and flu season.
Yet despite all the rhetoric from doctors and public health officials throughout the pandemic to stay home when sick, just a quarter of educators say they take sick days when they are feeling ill. The rest are continuing to go to work when sick, if possible—a consequence of the shortage of substitute teachers and other staff that continues to plague schools.
When the results are broken down by job category, principals are the least likely to say they’ll take a sick day when they’re ill. Only 13 percent of school leaders say they stay home and rest when they’re sick, compared to 25 percent of teachers and 34 percent of district leaders.
There was no statistically significant difference in how often the three groups got sick. But school leaders in particular often feel like they have no other choice but to power through and go to work.
“Life doesn’t really pause,” said Donna Hayward, the principal of Haddam Killingworth High School in Higganum, Conn. “People don’t stop needing you just because you’re sick. You pretty much get emails or calls or texts all day. If you don’t [respond], it’s just a tidal wave of work waiting for you when you get back.”
And the substitute shortage has made educators’ jobs even harder. In many cases, teachers are well aware that if they’re out sick, their colleagues are covering their classes on top of their own workloads. Principals, who are tasked with overseeing all the scheduling challenges, are often pitching in to cover vacancies themselves.
Thirty-five percent of teachers, and 32 percent of principals, say they try to avoid taking the day off, unless it’s COVID-19 or they can’t get out of bed, because they feel guilty leaving their colleagues without substitute coverage. Just 22 percent of district leaders say the same.
Three percent of teachers said they wanted to take a sick day when they were ill, but they were told by their supervisor to come in anyway (unless they had COVID-19 or couldn’t get out of bed), because there weren’t enough substitutes.
Some educators are sicker than usual this year
Safety precautions to curb the spread of COVID-19—like mask-wearing and social distancing—also blocked the spread of other respiratory viruses, including the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, during the height of the pandemic. But health experts have said those viruses are coming back with a vengeance this fall, as virus mitigation protocols wane. And COVID-19 remains a threat, with the omicron variant continuing to spread.
“We had a one-two punch this year in my particular school,” said Hayward, who is the National Principal of the Year. “Omicron seemed to hit the adults in my building one department at a time—English got it first, and then special ed. .... Now that omicron has gone through, we’re getting the traditional flu for the first time in one or two years.”
She added: “We all came unmasked, and here come the normal germs again.”
According to an EdWeek survey conducted this summer, 85 percent of educators said they didn’t plan to wear a mask on a regular basis at school this fall. That’s a big departure from the first two pandemic winters, when masks were largely required for educators and students—if the schools were open for in-person instruction at all.
“I think we’re vulnerable more than we were last year because we are gathered together more, and we don’t wear the masks [as frequently],” said Donna Mazyck, the executive director of the National Association of School Nurses. “It’s simply a matter of us being in the same environment more.”
This is the first fall since the pandemic began in which virtually every school is conducting full in-person instruction. Since most people weren’t exposed to respiratory viruses in 2020 and 2021, they may have an “immunity gap,” experts say—meaning their immune systems are less prepared to fight off the viruses this year.
The EdWeek survey found that while most educators said they haven’t experienced a change in how often they’ve gotten sick this school year, compared to 2019, a quarter are getting sick more frequently.
Mazyck said it’s generally best practice for people to stay home when sick. Otherwise, they could infect others—or simply won’t do their best work.
“When you’re coughing constantly, when you’re sneezing constantly, when you have a fever, you’re not at your best—whether you’re the student, the teacher, or any other adult in the building,” she said.
Yet many teachers say that taking a day off is often more stressful than going in while sick, because they have to make lesson plans for a substitute and then spend time reestablishing routines when they’re back.
Christine Feliciano Barrett, a high school English teacher in Queens, N.Y., was diagnosed with RSV the week before Thanksgiving. She had such a severe cough that she reluctantly stayed home from work for three days. On the fourth day, she was still coughing and not feeling well. But, she said, “I forced myself to go back to work because of the amount of work I knew I was walking into.”
Although Barrett had been posting assignments on Google Classroom for her students to complete in her absence, most of them weren’t doing the work. Barrett would check the status of the assignments from home, realizing that the longer she stayed home, the further her class would fall behind in the unit.
“When I’m sick, like now, it’s a debate of, how sick am I?” she said. “If I don’t have a fever, if I can talk, I’m like, ‘Maybe I should just risk going in.’”
Sick day policies also push educators to go back to work before they’re ready
There was another factor weighing on Barrett’s calculus on when to go back to work: the number of sick days she had left. Barrett has burned through her accumulated sick days over the years by using them for parental leave and for taking care of her children when they were sick. New York City schools allows teachers to borrow up to 20 additional sick days before being docked a day’s pay. Educators can slowly rebuild their store by one day a month.
Barrett has been in the negative for years, but she was close to getting out—until her latest bout with RSV set her back.
“It was very frustrating,” she said. “I knew that I was not well enough to teach, but each day I was out was another day in the negative.”
Nationally, teachers get an average of 10 sick days and three personal days a year, which typically roll over from year to year and are paid out upon retirement.
Many school districts have stopped offering extra paid leave for teachers who contract COVID-19, so educators who have to quarantine for the recommended five days may quickly drain their sick leave.
Twenty-four percent of educators said they’ve taken sick days more often this school year, compared to fall 2019. Nineteen percent said they’ve taken sick days less often.
But the majority of educators said there hasn’t been a change in how often they take sick days since the start of the pandemic.
To ward off severe illnesses this winter, Mazyck, from the National Association of School Nurses, urged educators to get their flu vaccines and COVID-19 boosters.
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2022 edition of Education Week as It’s a Nasty Cold and Flu Season, But Some Educators Are Reluctant to Take Sick Days