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Talk Data to Me: Reasons for Teacher Absences in 2020

Teacher Absences & Subs

Previously on Talk Data to Me, we examined COVID-19’s impact on teacher absences throughout the spring. Between March and the end of the school year, most school districts across the country had migrated to virtual learning models, and during that time the number of absences requiring a substitute plummeted. So far during the 2020-21 school year, some districts have chosen to fully reopen, some are continuing with virtual learning, and others are operating somewhere in between, with a hybrid model.

So, how are teacher absences looking at this point?

Overall, teacher absences are significantly down compared to prior years. The chart below looks at the total number of absences requiring a sub that were logged in Frontline Absence & Time between August 1 and September 15 over the past several years. 2020 only saw about 1/3 of the absences over the same period that 2019 did. That’s good news for the time being — but it’s a figure that could change rapidly. As winter approaches, or if more districts move to in-person learning, teacher absences could easily rise as teachers may be inclined (or required) to stay out of the building if they have a cold or a sniffle.

It gets even more interesting when we look at why teachers have taken days off.

Within Frontline’s Absence & Time solution, users are given fourteen different options to classify the reason for being absent. These include illness, professional development, and personal time off (for the full list, see below). We wanted to see how the proportion of absences for certain reasons compares this year — a year grappling with a global pandemic — with previous years. With data from the Frontline Research & Learning Institute, we did just that, and the results may surprise you.

The data for August 1 to September 15 for the years 2017-20 reveals some interesting patterns — or lack thereof — in the proportion of absences for certain reasons. Table 1 details the proportion of absences by their reason.

The percentage of absences for “Illness” remains quite consistent from year to year — surprising, perhaps, given the pandemic. Absences for personal time are down about 2% compared with previous years, yet absences for vacation have jumped from a consistent 10-11% to almost 14%.

Field trip absences dipped, which isn’t a surprise (a moment of silence for the museum trips and performances of Romeo and Juliet that weren’t able to be rescheduled). Absences for professional development also plummeted this year. Though some districts may have cancelled or postponed professional development activities, which would contribute to the drop in PD-related absences, it is also possible that many teachers have stopped seeking professional learning activities.

The largest year-to-year difference is seen for absences where the reason is “Other,” jumping from between 8.7 and 9.9% in 2017-2019 to 17.6% so far this year. Why the huge increase?

One answer could be in how administrators choose to log their absences in relation to COVID. Frontline Absence & Time allows administrators to customize their organization’s list of absence reasons, but those customized reasons must fall within the original fourteen options. Since August 1, administrators created approximately 14,000 new absence reasons, of which about 2,200 were COVID-19 related. Of those 2,200 COVID-19–related reasons, nearly 60% were created under the “Other” category.

Why It Matters

In a year when schools are already fighting “COVID slide,” continuity of instruction is even more important. There will always be reasons teachers need to take time out of the classroom, but if you know why they’re taking time away, you can be proactive about addressing those reasons.

  • Are teachers taking more mental health or vacation days? We all need them sometimes. But there may be additional steps you can take to care for students and staff in this way. Dr. Kenya Coleman, Senior Director of School Mental Health at DC Public Schools, has some ideas for building resilience.
  • Do you see teachers taking time off for professional development — even if that’s rarer these days? Here’s what the data shows about their PD enrollment choices during the pandemic.
  • Do you see many COVID-related absences? You might wonder if it’s even legal to track employee health at this time — here is what the EEOC says. And what steps can you take to keep students and staff healthy? This panel of school health practitioners shares their expertise.
  • Last, what about when a teacher is absent for good (i.e. no longer works in your district)? If teacher turnover is higher than usual, that’s not surprising. Here are two perspectives — one from HR and one from Instruction — on how the two departments can work together to increase teacher retention.

Kevin Agnello

Kevin is a Data Analytics Engineer 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.