Human Resources

Talk Data to Me: Absence Management During COVID-19

7 min. read

In the last installment of Talk Data to Me, we looked at how COVID-19 has significantly impacted K-12 hiring. Below, we will again leverage data from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute, this time to show how COVID-19 has impacted teacher absences.

The K-12 community is faced with a difficult decision: continue remote learning in the fall? Or reopen the doors? Data from Frontline’s Absence & Substitute Management system might help inform your decision.

Beginning immediately after President Trump declared a National Emergency on March 13, trends in the absence data shifted dramatically. In the discussion below, “Week 11” refers to the 11th week of 2020: Sunday, March 8 through Saturday, March 14. This week tends to be the last week of normalcy in the data.

In the chart above, you can see that the number of absences requiring a substitute dropped markedly beginning the week after the National Emergency declaration. This is unsurprising, given that most school districts closed during that week and began remote learning initiatives.

Week 12 also marked the beginning of a steady decline of the number of active substitutes in our system. Over the course of a typical school year, there is a gradual rise and fall of active substitutes. Within the system, administrators have the ability to mark their substitutes as active or inactive. This change can be administrator-driven or substitute-driven. Some administrators, for example, decide to mark all substitutes as inactive for the summer months. A substitute could also be marked inactive after they request to be removed.

Due to COVID-19, the drop in active substitutes occurred after Week 11 — rather than at the beginning of summer as we usually expect. It’s worth noting that previous research performed by the Frontline Research & Learning Institute showed a connection between a low teacher to substitute ratio and a high absence fill rate.

Along with the decrease in the active substitute pool, there is an alarming decrease in the percentage of those substitutes who are filling absences.

The chart above shows the percentage of active substitutes that filled an absence in that week. A typical percentage of active substitutes who fill an absence in a given week tends to be in the 20-30% range.  Beginning in Week 12, only 2%-4% of active substitutes took jobs in schools.

Based on previous research from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute, the working substitute percentage is a strong positive influencer of absence fill rate. An extremely low working substitute percentage would typically predict a lower fill rate. But look at this: the chart below shows that during school closures due to COVID-19, fill rates are much higher than historical averages.

The chart above shows the weekly fill rate for all sub-required absences in 2018, 2019, and 2020. The fill rate trend for 2020 followed patterns similar to the previous two years. However, beginning in Week 12, fill rates skyrocketed, bucking the historical trend of fill rates during this point in the school year and as fill rate relates to working substitute percentage.

So, what?

The K-12 community is currently faced with the decision to either continue virtual instruction or reopen and operate in a new normal come fall. What can we learn from this spring’s data anomalies as they apply to this decision?

Continue Virtual Instruction

If districts are to continue their virtual instruction initiatives as they have throughout the spring, the data suggests that fill rates should remain high, even though active substitute pools may continue to drop, and the working substitute percentage may remain very low.

Reopen the Doors

However, the trends discussed above could prove very problematic if districts reopen in the fall. Here’s what to expect if districts reopen.

  • Number of Absences: We would expect the number of teacher absences to return to their typical levels: about a 600% increase from the numbers seen during this spring’s shutdown.
  • Number of Active Substitutes: It’s unclear if the change in active substitutes that we saw this spring was substitute-driven or administrator-driven. If the drop is due to substitutes deciding against accepting jobs due to COVID-19 restrictions or fear of contracting or spreading the virus, this could prove extremely impactful come fall if districts open and operate on a normal basis.
  • Working Substitute Percentage: There are several possible reasons why a much smaller percentage of active substitutes are filling absences this spring. It could be due to the very low number of available absences to fill. It could also be due to fear of contracting or spreading the virus. Whatever the cause, if the low working substitute percentage persists as schools reopen, it would negatively impact fill rates.
  • Fill Rates: If districts reopen in the fall, there would be an expected return to a normal amount of teacher absences, coupled with a potentially depleted active substitute pool and a worry about the percentage of those substitutes who are willing and able to work. These data trends together could negatively impact fill rates quite significantly.

“What Can I Do Now to Prepare?”

  1. Talk to your current substitute teachers. Gauge their interest and willingness to fill absences if your organization reopens in the fall. For more information on recruiting substitutes and increasing substitute engagement, check out this resource.
  2. Care for teachers. When districts reopen, there is a possible scenario where teachers are absent more than usual.
    1. Given the decrease in absences this spring, many teachers may have more accrued sick time than usual.
    2. Like many professionals across the county, teachers may feel it’s safest to err on the side of caution if they feel any illness symptoms and decide to self-quarantine.

    Consider an action plan for your organization to ensure your teachers feel safe and supported in their return to work.

  3. Actively recruit more substitute teachers. Following the 2008 recession, the overall substitute population increased. It’s possible that those newly unemployed during the recession found solace in the substitute teaching market. Those additional substitutes were often more qualified than usual. If unemployment rates remain high come fall, this pattern is certainly repeatable. With the threat of a shortage of active substitutes as discussed above, along with great potential for highly qualified substitute candidates in the unemployment pool, consider ramping up substitute recruitment efforts in your organization.

Kevin Agnello

Kevin is a Product Manager of Human Capital Analytics for Frontline Education. He is a former high school mathematics teacher and holds a Master's Degree in Educational Curriculum and Instruction, a Master's Degree in Educational Psychology, and is working on a dissertation toward a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology.