Earlier this week, the Register-Herald ran an editorial vilifying teachers and unconvincingly linking the days they take off to student absenteeism and achievement on the West Virginia General Summative Assessment. Unfortunately, the author takes no time to break down the statistics he uses nor does he analyze the larger issues at play.
First, we must remember that teachers are human, too. We spend all of our days around students, and, as anyone who has ever spent time around children knows, they often get sick. This means that teachers come directly in contact with countless infections and viruses, and we get sick as well.
Sometimes, our own loved ones get sick, and we must take off days to care for them. Just like the students that we have in class, our own children may come down with a cold or the flu, and many parents have to take off days to take care of their own sick children.
Not everyone has a family support system in place to watch children on a moment’s notice, nor does everyone have an on-call daycare that would actually take a sick child.
Many teachers are caregivers themselves, and they may have to take off to care for ill parents or family members. Many of our families could not afford a live-in nurse to take care of our loved ones. Others may not want to see them placed in a nursing home or assisted-living facility. This sort of care also falls to teachers, and we take our days to help and assist our family members in need.
We also cannot forget teachers who have a disability, long-term illness, or chronic condition or disease. For each doctor’s appointment, test, or consultation, they must take off. Often, like most workers even in the private sector, they will exhaust those paid sick days before they take unpaid medical leave.
An increasing number of teachers have absolutely no incentive to save those days. It is important to note that all teachers hired in 2015 or later will either “use or lose” those days. Prior to 2015, teachers, depending on when they were hired, can use accumulated days toward years of service or toward insurance when they retire. New teachers do not have this option.
And, the number of new teachers is exponentially growing because older teachers are retiring, many others are moving for higher-paying positions in nearby states, and some are even leaving the profession altogether from attacks on education.
Student absenteeism is a problem, but are the days teachers take off to blame? According to the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the six causes of student absenteeism are difficulties with housing or food, caring for another family member, illness, mental or emotional health, bullying, and struggling academically.
The first cause is extremely relevant to our state. The West Virginia Department of Education reported that there were 6,509 children in foster care and 10,522 homeless students during the 2018-2019 school year. According to grandfamilies.org, another 41,482 children live with grandparents or other relatives and nearly 22,000 children live with a relative with no parent present.
Yet, our legislative leaders do not seem to be concerned with passing legislation that truly helps these populations, and making matters worse, they have decreased the percentage of education spending in the state’s budget from 51.24% in 2000 to 42.53% in 2018.
Moreover, the state’s poverty rate is 19.1%, which is the 4th highest in the country. This instability may also compound with the other causes of student absenteeism, such as a child caring for another family member or the effects on mental and physical health. Not to mention, there are many students who experience trauma, but we have not yet quantified this population.
Despite the problems facing our students, our schools are still doing good things. Unfortunately, the author of the editorial does not want to acknowledge any of these statistics.
According to the WVDE’s 2018-2019 Year in Review, West Virginia is 1st in the nation in school breakfast participation. We are 3rd in the nation for our graduation rate. We ranked 6th in the nation for access to high-quality Universal Pre-K and for meeting nine of the 10 quality benchmarks. We are 15th in the nation for our percentage of National Board Certified Teachers. On the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which is the largest nationally-normed standardized test, we ranked 36th in the country for 4th grade students who scored at or above proficiency in reading and 39th in the country for 4th grade students who scored at or above proficiency in math. It is important to note that of those 4th grade students who tested, 86% qualified for free and reduced lunch, which was the highest percentage in all of the country.
We are not last in everything, even though the author of the editorial would like the readers to believe that. Furthermore, he does not give us an accurate or holistic picture of what is affecting our schools and how our schools are performing, even though he likes to cite some statistics.
What we need to recognize is that there are a myriad of issues affecting our students, our schools, and our state. Attacking teachers, yet again, is not the solution.
National Board Certified Teacher President, Marion County Education Association