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Students vs. Staff: Who’s Absent More?

Teacher Absences & Subs

We know that learning suffers when students or their teachers are absent. Yet the focus is often only on student attendance — especially daily attendance rates, which can affect school funding. But as it turns out, some teachers have higher chronic absenteeism rates than the students they teach.

student vs. employee absence infographic
Employee absence data from Frontline Research & Learning Institute
U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, “2013-2014 Civil Rights Data Collection: A First Look

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We compared data on student and staff absences during the 2013-2014 school year and found that nearly 30 percent of employees requiring a substitute are chronically absent, compared to only 14 percent of students.

That’s a lot of lost instructional time! But consider that the Department of Education defines chronic absenteeism for students as 15 or more absences in a year. But for teachers, chronic absenteeism is defined as 10 or more absences in a year. So, standards for the two groups aren’t set equally.

The other crucial piece to keep in mind is that teacher absences are frequently driven by school- or district-sponsored activities, like professional development. When we exclude professionally related employee absences (like those for PD or field trips), we see that only 21.7% of these employees are chronically absent, according to the DOE’s definition. For some states, this difference is even more remarkable. For example, over half of all employees requiring a substitute in Michigan were chronically absent during the 2013-2014 school year — a mindboggling statistic. When you take out professionally-related absences, however, the number drops to 33.9%.

No matter what, we can see that student and teacher absences add up to a lot of lost learning opportunities.

How to save instructional time in your schools.

There’s no magic cure for reducing student or teacher absences. But some initiatives can make an impact on both — like working on your school culture, ensuring that schools are as clean as possible, improving the quality of school ventilation systems or implementing health-related efforts like hand-washing programs. Hopefully, taking action in some of these areas can help reclaim instructional time and keep everyone’s smiling faces in the classroom.

When it comes to teacher absences in particular, you may have more opportunity to encourage lower absence rates and support uninterrupted student learning.

Manage teacher absences strategically.

The first step to reducing the impact of teacher absences on student learning is reliably tracking employee attendance. This will give you the visibility you need to address absenteeism before it becomes an issue — you may find that certain employees are absent more often than not, sparking a constructive conversation. Or, you may find that specific schools in the district see higher absence rates than others, and start exploring why.

Finally, you can examine your school or district’s absence data to see if professionally related absences are driving absenteeism up. If that’s the case, you can plan ahead so that you can provide educators with plenty of professional learning opportunities and support, without causing a substitute shortage.

Keep student learning going.

Then, when teachers have to be absent — whether due to illness, PD or anything else —make sure that a qualified substitute is ready to fill in and keep students learning. It’s not enough to just find the right substitute, either — you want to be sure that substitutes are 100% prepared, too. One way to do that is to provide substitute-specific training courses to help them succeed in the classroom, but you’ll also want to encourage your teachers to have lesson plans, seating charts and any other helpful resources easily accessible, so substitutes can jump right in.

There you have it — with a strategic approach to lower absence rates and uninterrupted student learning, you’re right on track to reclaiming some of that lost instructional time.

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Annie GrunwellAnnie Buttner

Annie is a writer and part of the award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She's passionate about learning, exploring data and sharing knowledge. Her specialties include substitute management, the K-12 staffing shortage, and best practices in human capital management.