Teaching Profession

When Teachers Get Sick, Taking Leave Can Be Tough

By Catherine Gewertz & Sarah Schwartz — January 13, 2020 8 min read
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As soon as they feel feverish or achy, teachers must juggle a tricky mix of considerations: Do I have enough sick time left to stay home right now? Will my principal be angry if I call in sick? Are my students at a crucial juncture in their learning, and how will they do with a substitute? Will my school even be able to find a sub, or will they impose on one of my colleagues to fill in for me?

With a particularly nasty flu season bearing down on the country, many teachers are trying to navigate through those kinds of questions.

Every time 4th grade teacher Allyson Robinson wakes up sick, her “teacher guilt” kicks in. Here are the kinds of things swirling in her head: If she stays home to recover, she won’t see the student who had such a tough time yesterday, whom she wants to comfort today. She can’t prepare her class for the test that’s coming up. Her absence might affect their scores. Is it really worth calling in sick?

“I’m sitting in the bed feeling awful, feeling terrible, with my phone in my hand, literally trying to convince myself that it’s okay,” said Robinson, who teaches in Georgia’s Henry County schools.

Robinson has a lot of company. Even as the popular wellness culture—and their own wisdom—urges teachers to take care of themselves, a powerful mix of devotion, obligation, and fear often leads them to come to work, armed with Kleenex and Dayquil. The experience is so common, and so resonant, that an essay on the topic, posted last week on WeAreTeachers went viral (so to speak). It argued that incentives woven into schools encourage teachers to come to work sick.

“So many teachers have a such hard time taking time off,” said Eli Peyton, the Atlanta 7th grade English/language arts teacher who wrote the essay for WeAreTeachers. “Honestly, I’m pretty lucky where I am, they’re really supportive. ... But in so many places, this is a real problem.”

LaQuisha Hall, who teaches English at Baltimore’s Carver Vocational Technical High School, said many teachers’ devotion to their students can override their need to take care of themselves.

“We have that sense of duty to return to work, even if we’re sick, because we want the right person in front of our students,” said Hall, who was Baltimore’s 2018 teacher of the year. “Sometimes we come back to horror stories about what’s happened when a sub was there.”

Even still, Hall feels strongly that teachers need to take care of themselves. She stayed home when she had tonsillitis last month. After three days, she still felt awful, but she went to the doctor to get a note to comply with her district’s rule on sick time. Then she climbed back into bed for two more days.

“Teachers often put themselves on the back burner,” Hall said. “But part of being a good educator is taking care of ourselves. Kids need to witness that, too, and have a whole, healthier teacher.”

One of the ‘Germiest’ Jobs

Sick time rules vary from place to place, since they’re set by union contracts or district policy. On average, teachers have about a dozen days of combined sick and personal leave each year. In some districts, teachers can use as many as 10 days off without a doctor’s note, while in others, they must submit documentation of a medical visit within a few days. In some places, teachers can use their leave to take care of sick relatives, and in other places, they can use it only for their own illness.

Research is thin on whether teachers take more sick time than other professionals, but one analysis rated them sixth on a list of 14 major professional fields, missing .39 of a day on average each month. Studies show, however, that teachers’ workplaces rate among the “germiest,” and that they’re more likely than people in other professions to get respiratory illnesses.

That’s hardly surprising, since teachers are surrounded by children, who are “effective transmitters of respiratory germs,” said Donna Mazyck, the executive director of the National Association of School Nurses. Teachers of younger children are especially susceptible, she said, since they’re in such close contact with their students, helping with coats and hats, or squatting at a desk to explain something.

Mazyck encourages teachers to double up on prevention tactics throughout the winter and early spring, when colds and flu are most prevalent. Encouraging children to wash their hands frequently and cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough—and doing the same themselves—can help. Teachers should also consider getting flu vaccines and keeping a bottle of cleanser in their classrooms so they can periodically spritz much-touched surfaces such as doorknobs, desks, and computers.

If all prevention fails and teachers get sick, they should go home, especially if they’re feverish or nauseated.

“It’s really best to get yourself out of the activity so you can take care of yourself,” Mazyck said. “You also don’t want to be spreading what you’ve got to others.”

One way teachers can feel a little better about taking sick time is to make sure their lesson plans are up to date and easy for another teacher to take over, Mazyck said. “If you don’t have your sub plans ready, you might just decide to tough it out.”

‘I Worry My Students Will Fall Behind’

Even with good sub plans, though, plenty of other dynamics interfere with teachers taking care of themselves when they’re sick. Michele Kerr, a math and engineering teacher in Fremont, Calif., went to work last week even as allergies and a cold collided, making her hoarse and congested. In Kerr’s district, she can take as many days of sick time as she needs without a doctor’s note, she said, but she couldn’t justify it.

“Unless I can plan for being out, then it’s an utterly wasted day for my students, and it means they’ll probably have to pull teachers out of class to cover for me,” she said. “I also worry that my students will fall behind.”

In the age of accountability, the need to produce good test scores is a big factor when teachers consider calling in sick, said Dan McConnell, a 3rd grade teacher in Marathon, N.Y. Twenty years ago, when he began teaching, it wasn’t uncommon for teachers to take a “sick” day the Monday after the Super Bowl, he said with a laugh. But now they’re much more hesitant to take sick leave.

“The more and more responsible you are for the outcomes of your students, the more likely you are to not want to hand that over to someone else,” he said.

Teachers’ fears about students falling behind aren’t groundless. A 2007 study by Harvard researchers found that student achievement can slip when teachers miss school for 10 days.

Little is known about the academic impact of shorter absences on achievement, but Raegen T. Miller, a research advisor for FutureEd at Georgetown University and the lead author of the 2007 study, said that short-term sick leaves could actually be more disruptive than longer ones.

Longer absences are more likely to be filled by long-term substitutes, who are typically better paid and more highly qualified than short-term subs, and can build relationships with students over time, he said.

If districts are concerned about the rate of their teacher absences, discouraging sick leave shouldn’t be the first thing they focus on, Miller said. Instead, they should examine how much they require teachers to be away from their classrooms for things like professional development, Miller said.

Conflict Over Sick Leave

Some teachers have surely heard occasional horror stories about colleagues who’ve run afoul of their bosses when they take sick leave, and that could double their hesitation to do so themselves. In interviews with Education Week, two teachers described clashes they’d had with their administrators when they took even scheduled sick leave, but asked that their stories be kept off the record. Others tweeted about it.

A teacher who goes by @DonsMathClass tweeted that he’s seen colleagues punished for taking sick leave.

“Some admin monitor the # of sick days a T takes,” he wrote. “Contract allows X amount of days per yr. Since admin cannot do anything about it, they hold it against a T for missing work. I’ve seen admin adversely score T evals based on sick days.”

In some districts, teachers have to pay for their own subs when they’re on extended medical leaves. Even if they don’t, though, just knowing that a sick day will force their administrators to scramble for a sub is a strong deterrent to teachers staying home when they’re ill.

Chyna Lynner, a special education teacher in Grand Forks, N.D., said she won’t stay home unless she’s “on her death bed.” She’s aware that it’s particularly tough for her school to find a qualified teacher to take over her class. And many of her students have special behavior needs and rely on a consistent routine, she said.

“The change of a substitute can throw off their whole day,” Lynner said.

Even when she does stay home sick, it’s hard to get enough rest because she feels tied to her classroom, Lynner said. When she took two days off this year with the flu, she felt she had to answer text messages from her 11 paraprofessional colleagues who peppered her with questions. How should they best keep her students on track? What consequence would be appropriate for this child?

Robinson, the Henry County, Ga., teacher, said she’s come a long way since she started five years ago in her ability to take time off to care for herself when she’s sick. A colleague said something that stuck with her: If you die, the coworker said, your job will be posted quicker than you’ll be in the ground.

“When the children go home, they’ll have someone to take care of them. At school, they have tons of people to take care of them. I have to worry about taking care of myself,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2020 edition of Education Week as For Sick Teachers, Taking Leave Isn’t Easy

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