As concerns about keeping teachers mount, here’s something to consider: Teachers in most states across the country don’t have duty-free lunch, bathroom, or planning breaks protected by law. In some cases, teachers find themselves going without bathroom breaks and working overtime to make up for lost planning time.
But last week, South Carolina joined a list of at least 23 other states that have laws protecting duty-free breaks for teachers. The South Carolina law, which Gov. Henry McMaster signed on May 16, gives elementary and special education teachers a 30-minute break each day free of responsibilities, which is typical of such laws, some of which date back to the 1960s.
“This is the kind of thing that shouldn’t necessarily require legislative action,” said Patrick Kelly, a teacher in Columbia, S.C., and director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association. “It should be something that, in many cases, school leadership should be able to figure out.”
Many teachers in states without duty-free lunch or break laws still have break times throughout the day. District and school officials have the power to establish their own policies on teacher breaks. Without a law, however, there’s no penalty for not doing that.
Some states—including Colorado, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Rhode Island—don’t have a duty-free break law specific to teachers, but have labor laws that require employers to offer breaks throughout the work day.
A help in retaining teachers?
Recent teacher shortage crises have pushed lawmakers to focus on educator retention, including laws addressing school climate and workplace retention.
In South Carolina, the situation is dire. There were 1,063 teacher vacancies in the state as of September and October, according to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, a South Carolina nonprofit dedicated to teacher retention. The number is a 15.5 percent increase from the 2020-21 school year.
“The scope of the teacher shortage ... is growing so rapidly and becoming so immense that policymakers are understanding that they have to do something to better recruit and retain teachers in our state,” Kelly said.
The issue has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, in which teachers found themselves having to juggle students both in person and online throughout the school day. That situation, which Kelly describes as a “dual-modality environment,” led many teachers to go without breaks.
The South Carolina law is focused on elementary and special education teachers because they are most likely to forfeit break times in order to keep an eye on students.
The state doesn’t have hard data on workplace conditions, but Kelly did his own survey of 300 of his colleagues three years ago. A third of the elementary teachers included in the survey said they regularly didn’t have a bathroom break all day.
The law will be a welcome change for those teachers, Kelly said.
“This is a good starting place — just basic working conditions, where people have time to go to the restroom, to eat their lunch, to plan, to grade,” he said.
But for Kelly, the law is only a “base level” answer to teacher shortages. Much more needs to be done in the state and across the country to ensure that teachers remain in the profession, he said.
“So much of the discussion in national education discourse right now is about the curriculum or it’s about educational settings and choice, but at the end of the day all of those debates are moot if you don’t have sufficient numbers of high-quality teachers,” he said.