Maryland's teacher absence rate needs a closer look

Pardon me while I rant: Are you kidding me? According to a report from the Center for American Progress, about 35 percent of Maryland teachers missed 10 or more days of the 2009-2010 school year. Excuse me?

Don't most teachers work 10 months? Don't they get vacation?

I'm a union man, but I'll tell you one thing: The men and women who fought for and won sick-day privileges for teachers did not think there would be this kind of abuse of the privilege.

And you can get all huffy-and-puffy about my use of the word "abuse," but a sick-day rate like this smells of it.

I know what every reasonable person knows: We get sick. Our kids get sick. We get burned out. We need time off.

I was having such thoughts before I wrote this. I was thinking of calling the boss to ask for a day off.

But I didn't. You know why? I wasn't sick. I'd have to pull a Bueller. I'd have to cheat my employer, even though I'd be within my collectively bargained rights, sort of.

Do teachers get sick more often than the rest of us?

Intuition says yes, of course, because they work in public spaces within easy sneezing distance of hundreds of children, young teens and young adults. Their sphere is full of germs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say school-age children have the highest rates of flu. If you're going to catch the flu, you're much more likely to get it from a child than anyone else.

Of course, that's why they invented flu shots. That's why we wash our hands.

Just the same, I'll acknowledge that teachers have stressful jobs and that they work in an environment with lots of germs.

But 35 percent of all teachers took 10 days or more in one academic year?

I have to think about that one. I have to assume that some teachers were really sick, even needed to be hospitalized.

But that rate is too high — Maryland ranks 29th out of all the states — because the stakes are too high. Teacher absences at this rate must affect learning, and we can't afford to lose any ground.

It's a problem across the country, according to the Center for American Progress, which wants teacher absence to be considered as a leading indicator of student achievement.

It's a problem for unions, too. Teachers unions take a beating from right-wing media and politicians, and this report just provides the union abolitionists with more ammunition.

OK, end of rant.

Now, something to consider about why teachers might get sick more than the rest of us. (This is the "benefit of the doubt" part of today's column.)

Why do sick children go to school? Because their parents send them to school. And their parents send them to school because, unlike teachers, many parents do not get paid sick days.

"Nearly four in 10 private-sector workers — and 81 percent of the lowest-wage workers — do not have paid sick days to care for their own health. And millions more don't have paid sick days to care for a sick child."

That's from the National Partnership for Women and Families, an advocacy group that started 40 years ago as the Women's Legal Defense Fund. It has lobbied for important policies and laws that made jobs and workplaces more family-friendly. It is leading a movement to establish a national sick days standard for all workers.

The Job Opportunities Task Force is joining the effort in Maryland this week. It estimates that 800,000 Marylanders "are forced to make impossible choices: Go to work sick, send an ill child to school, or stay home and sacrifice much-needed income, possibly risking job loss."

Last month, the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan released the results of a national poll on children's health. It found that a third of parents of young children are concerned about losing their jobs, or at least some pay, when they take time off to care for their sick children.

The report said: "Improving employee benefits related to paid sick leave appears to be important for many parents because it would allow parents to care for their sick child at home or give parents the opportunity to go to their child's usual health care provider instead of the emergency room."

So we can connect the dots and conclude that, to some degree, the fact that thousands of working Americans have no paid sick days contributes to the taking of up to 10 sick days by teachers, particularly those who teach a high percentage of children from low-income families.

I'll buy some of that. I just won't buy 35 percent.

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