Parents and Guardians of New Jersey’s School-Age Population, Your children are likely to be without their teachers and other school employees more often this school year, courtesy of your elected state representatives and Governor Phil Murphy.
School Employee Absenteeism Understated, Now Unstated
New Jersey law and local labor agreements offer generous, if not extravagant, paid and unpaid leave benefits to public school employees. Since school employee absences from work or their regular duties affect the continuity of instruction, it is worth noting that the state has never effectively measured the extent to which these days may have impaired student performance outcomes.
For decades, the state department of education gathered and released information showing that statewide, professional school staff members were at work usually 95% or more of the time. This was a grossly inflated figure. The annual school performance review issued by the state Department of Education had regularly overstated unaudited, district-submitted attendance data, which effectively masked the actual number of days professional staff members were absent.
The ridiculous (and frankly, useless) formula considered in the calculation just sick days and only when a teacher was absent for fewer than five consecutive ones. All other paid days taken, and many more were for all sorts of reasons, were excluded from the computation, which presented a deceptive picture of how often school professionals were not engaged in their normal work. It is unclear why such a narrow definition was ever chosen or why it was used for decades, or whether it may have been a subterfuge designed to mislead the public.
New Method Needed to Measure Staff Absenteeism
The state department ceased gathering and reporting staff attendance information beginning the 2019-2020 school during the early part of the first Murphy administration. Since then, no reliable method producing more precise and dependable data has replaced it. The department still posts abundant amounts of annual information about the experience levels, academic background, work credentials, gender, race and retention of professional staff, but continues to keep parents and guardians in the dark about a critical component of learning: the amount of classroom instructional time or other services students typically receive from assigned staff during a 10-month period when schools are in session for only 180 days.
Through the annual data submission process, the department could create a far better data base to include the number of days professional staff members are with students during each 180-day school year cycle and the broad categories into which those days generally fall, for example, medical, personal, professional, and unpaid short and long-term leaves.
Although the department periodically examines staff attendance issues through a triennial state monitoring process, there is little evidence that the state has the power to direct school districts to address in any significant way questionable attendance patterns, matters which normally fall within the domain of local collective bargaining agreements.
State education unions and their many political allies would exert strong pressure to discourage the education department from aggressively monitoring staff absenteeism since the information garnered could reveal an unsettling behavior pattern that has largely gone unnoticed or worse yet, ignored and left unaddressed.
New Paid Sick Leave Law
A revised paid sick leave law recently took effect and could generate greater staff absences this school year, further exacerbating the effects of the current teacher and substitute shortage. This development, now more than ever before, should prompt the department to assess the true frequency and nature of these absences.
New Jersey law provides that all persons steadily employed in the schools are legally eligible to receive at least 10 sick days annually, which days, if unused in a given school year, accumulate without limit. The legislation enacted in late June expanded the definition of a paid sick day for school employees allowing them to use these days and any accumulated ones not only for their own illnesses, injuries or other disabilities but also for those in their immediate family. This compensated time may also be for bereavement leave, incidences of domestic or sexual violence involving the employee, and school-related matters involving the employee’s child.
Incidentally, these new legal provisions are in addition to many time off paid benefits already provided in local labor agreements.
On its face, the law may appear sensible, generous and compassionate. As a practical matter, however, it could sharply increase the number of staff absences, deepen the shortage of daily substitutes and quality longer-term replacements, and raise substitute costs. More important, it may severely disrupt learning in many places.
The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) pushed for the change, which also weakens enforcement procedures specifically designed to prevent sick leave abuse. The state union argued successfully that more available paid time would allow school employees to maintain a better home-work balance and make teaching a more appealing profession.
Grudging congratulations to the NJEA for this major legislative achievement, but also discredit to most of the state’s elected politicians and the governor for accepting contorted logic leading to this contradiction in policy goals: While the law as claimed will enable school staff to better cope with life’s complexities and may ease but only slightly the teacher shortage—it will also probably deny students valuable instructional time and other services.
Unknown and Unintended Consequences
The greatest unknown is whether school employees entitled to more discretionary and lawful paid leave will use it judiciously. Since the standard practice of taking time off is predicated on school employees’ self-reporting absences largely free administrative oversight or control, it may be wishful thinking that statewide absenteeism overall will not increase.
The more likely outcome is that with fewer restrictions and guardrails more days off will take place. This will be especially detrimental to students who have not yet fully recovered fully from instructional loss during extended school closures several years ago.
A spike in staff absences will also pose a challenge to school administrators to ensure adequate class coverage or the delivery of other critical student services. It could also cause major inconveniences to current staff members. Without adequate and quality substitutes available, some may be required to give up a daily preparation or lunch period to cover the classes of absent colleagues or even assume an additional daily teaching assignment.
The department of education, the administrative agency focused on the state’s school-age population, appears to have forgotten that continual student-staff engagement is closely linked to higher achievement levels. It correctly tracks student absenteeism, a chronic problem in many schools, so why not do the same for staff attendance– but this time with authority, integrity and accuracy?
Also, since the legislature has made it easier for school employees to take more paid time off, will the state help school districts offset any further student learning loss and increased personnel costs? Or, will districts be on their own to deal with the adverse consequences of another ill-advised policy decision?
Sadly, the enactment of this revised paid sick leave law once again lays bare the power of special interest groups and the willingness of politicians this election year to relegate students’ needs to ensure their own political future.
Dr. Marc Gaswirth, a retired public school administrator, has written extensively for more than 40 years about public sector bargaining and school human resources.