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Getting the Facts on School Staff Attendance

There were several points that need clarified regarding the article focusing on Ohio County Schools’ staff attendance.

First, the number of total absences is misconstrued. The number of total absences of 9,572 during the 2018-2019 school year represents all positions in the school system (a little over 800 staff members). This number, down from 11,376 during the 2016 school year (a decrease of roughly 16%), includes ALL types of absences including: maternity leave, long-term leave for illness, Family Medical Leave Act leave (FMLA), workers compensation absences and permanent substitutes in positions where staff shortages cause the positions to go unfilled. Despite these absences being used for the total calculation, Ohio County Schools staff still use, on average, LESS THAN their allotted contracted days off.

Let’s explore some of these absences in depth. Just this year alone, Ohio County Schools has 13 FMLA approved leaves. An FMLA leave is defined as providing certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. FMLA is designed to help employees balance work and family responsibilities for certain family or personal medical reasons. In addition to FMLA leaves, Ohio County Schools has a young staff with the vast majority of those being female and no maternity leave policy. Female employees must take their saved sick days and then must take unpaid “docked” days to extend their time off with their babies or to recover from childbirth. FMLA-approved medical leaves and maternity leaves are calculated into the figures of absences and subsequent expenditures for substitutes.

Another form of absence is personal leave. Last year, OCS employees took off a total of 1,427 personal days. Divided by the total number of staff (803) this equals approximately 1.7 personal days per staff member, per year — much lower than the total number of allotted, contracted personal days (now four per year). Another form of absence calculated into this is professional days, which are days that OCS pays for a substitute so that staff members can complete training, attend conferences, meetings or Individualized Education Plan (IEP) development for students.

Ohio County Schools does a tremendous job providing opportunities for training of staff to meet the ever-changing needs of its learners, from technology and innovation training, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math), trauma and mental health trainings, and specialized training for students with special needs. Often times, these trainings are during the work day and a substitute is required.

In addition to trainings, many special education teachers require a substitute to serve their students’ needs for state mandated testing. The assessment, given to students with significant cognitive needs, must be administered on an individualized basis and requires a substitute teacher to instruct and supervise the other students. This takes anywhere from three days to up to two weeks. In order to provide our students with the best opportunities for success and provide academic instruction and safety of the other students, substitutes are used in those classrooms.

Now that absences and types of absences have been explained, we want to take the opportunity to explain that in a school system, the quality of instruction and safety of the students is paramount. Unlike a traditional business or non-education profession, school employees cannot simply leave early, or take off part of a day and get their work done on their own time, nor can they make up work missed for necessary appointments during the weekend or before or after school hours. They must take the day off so that a substitute can be placed in that position. Schools and school systems are not a business, despite our current legislature trying to move us toward that model.

We must move past the notion that school systems are, or should be operated like businesses. When a school employee must miss, for any of the above reasons, a substitute is required so that the safety and quality of education remains intact. This is the case for any OCS position, from our dedicated cooks, bus drivers, custodians, and classroom aides and secretaries, to our teachers. Often, especially in the classroom for extended leaves (maternity or long-term substitutes when a position isn’t filled), those with the most expertise in their fields, often retired teachers, are sought to take those positions. This comes at an added cost, but education is never about the bottom line, it’s about providing the highest quality instruction for its learners. When retired or expert teachers are used to substitute for extended leaves, whether for medical reasons or due to the fact West Virginia is facing enormous teacher shortages, the cost is much higher than simply filling that position with someone under-qualified or less experienced.

OCS central office administration goes above and beyond to ensure that any vacancies or long-term substitute positions are filled with quality, highly qualified and experienced staff, despite the higher cost. Because, again, education is not about the bottom line.

Additionally, whereas other professional positions earn vacation time, usually, at least a week or two depending upon years at the job, teachers do not. The most common talking point to this is, “they get the whole summer off!” It needs to be understood that these are not paid days. This is also a little known fact: Teachers are in the only profession that is not eligible to draw any unemployment for lost days of labor within a year. Many teachers and school employees use their “summer vacation” to attend conferences, workshops, take courses, or to update and improve upon and enhance student learning in their classrooms, usually with no extra pay involved. Many school employees work a second or third job in the summer, due low salaries.

Teachers are also in the only profession that gets no overtime pay for hours worked beyond the regular 40- hour work week for their regular jobs. On average, teachers work 57 hours per week.

In summation, the total number of call-offs for our over 800 employees, and subsequent substitute costs, includes long- term medical leaves, family illness, personal days, professional days, maternity leave, and unfilled positions (again due to the fact that West Virginia is losing teachers at an alarming rate each year). When this data and information is included in the discussion regarding absences, it doesn’t seem as astronomical as painted by the earlier article.

In reality, though, this research wasn’t done to demonstrate “Math for Life” skills, but rather to help the public to understand that the 11 sick days and four personal days are the staff’s earned days. We earn them as a part of the salary package. They are ours to use. For many staff, if they don’t use them, they can be cashed in upon retirement for health insurance. Others under the newer plan lose days they do not use, ones they have earned. We are more than just school employees; we are mothers, fathers, grandparents, sons, and daughters, husbands, and wives and we have mothers, fathers, grandparents, sons, and daughters, husbands, and wives who get sick, chronically ill, need surgeries, etc. Don’t villainize school employees for taking time off. We are losing school employees. We are still without qualified teachers and universities are lacking candidates who want to go into the teaching profession.

As a final thought, please ask yourself this question: What happens when there is no one left who wants to go into the education field? Our state has vacancies that are not being filled. Perhaps now is the time to begin to understand the sacrifices, hard work, and dedication to our county that our school employees give and stand by us because our students and our community depend upon us.

Both Craig and Shriner are teachers in Ohio County Schools. Craig is president of the Ohio County Education Association (West Virginia Education Association), while Shriner is vice president.

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