About the Author: David Goldblatt is the former superintendent of Saddle River School District in New Jersey. He holds a Doctor of Education (EdD) degree from Nova Southeastern University.
When you consider ways to address the spike in teacher absences that can happen during the winter months, it’s important to first get to the bottom of why it’s so important to reduce teacher absences.
In the research I’ve done, it’s clear that teacher absenteeism is a factor in a student’s academic achievement and growth. Internalizing the vital link between teacher attendance and student achievement provides the rationale for putting people and resources together to attack teacher attendance and improve student outcomes, which is what we want to do for all students in all schools.
With that in mind, here’s how I would approach the particularly challenging period of winter teacher absences related to cold/flu season and the holidays.
Use data to inform staffing decisions
The goal, of course, is to stay one step ahead of winter teacher absences. The first thing that you have to do is take a look at the current and historical data you have on staff absences in the winter months and during flu season. You need to take a look at your needs by actually analyzing your past history on teacher attendance. That’s the starting point.
Based on this information, you can develop a proactive plan to meet your expected needs.
Hiring substitute teachers in advance for historically difficult teacher attendance days promotes consistent instruction that your students need. Having a backup plan for using substitutes in the event that you have overbooked makes sense as well. State reports, school-wide projects, and clerical needs should be planned for these days in case you have over-anticipated substitute needs.
Promote health education and smart policies
During flu season, it is essential to focus on educating students (and staff) on healthy daily practices. Emphasize that students and teachers need to stay home when they are sick, and share information to help them understand the early signs of real illnesses.
Also, schools should continue the daily practice of environmental cleanliness by scheduling daily cleaning of the door handles, computers, telephones, bathrooms, and water fountains. Providing each classroom and teaching area with a hand sanitizer dispenser and promoting their use continually underscores the goal of reducing student and teacher absences.
Implement holiday staffing policies
To reduce high teacher absences during holiday periods, schools and districts should eliminate vacation days immediately before or after a school holiday period. By professional staff acknowledging limited use of personal days during these periods, they become real partners in supporting quality teaching and learning. This was actually part of our contract negotiation, and it was something that our teachers understood and accepted.
Have a backup plan
I’m a firm believer in being proactive when it comes to addressing absences, but, as we know, there are harsh realities with these winter months. The flu (and other illnesses) don’t give advance notice, so we, like all schools and districts, have to deal with our fair share of unexpected teacher absences. In those cases, our internal resources could go only so far — even when we did everything we could to plan.
That’s why it’s important to consider a supplemental substitute teacher service like the Swing Education model that uses cutting-edge technology to reach a large group of substitute teachers instantly. The software that we have today is much more effective than just calling up somebody on the phone at 8 a.m. and then going on from one person to another.
This is a great resource to help with those unexpected absences, and it’s an important tool because it provides consistency and stability for students in their learning environments.
One other factor to note is the impact teacher absences have on staff morale. Schools that suffer from frequent teacher absences and do not have sufficient substitute teacher coverage might be forced to switch teachers from their own teaching responsibilities to cover for absent teachers (not to mention asking those teachers to give up planning periods or even PD days).
Frequent use of this practice causes morale issues by making professionals feel that their primary value is as a substitute rather than a professional in their teaching assignments. Limiting it will help keep morale high by validating teachers for their skill sets in their areas of expertise.