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As R.I. takes control of Providence schools, teacher absenteeism seen as a concern

The Providence School Department headquarters. (Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File) Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Of all the damning findings that researchers at Johns Hopkins University included in their review of the Providence School Department this spring, there is one issue that state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has repeatedly vowed to address: attendance.

“We were particularly struck by the high incidence of teacher and student absenteeism, which appears closely linked to school culture and safety,” the review team stated in its report.

While Providence’s struggles with student absenteeism have been well-documented, the alarming number of school days missed by teachers is now coming under more scrutiny as the state prepares to take control of the district.


A Globe review of attendance data found 500 city teachers were marked absent no fewer than 18 times during the 2018-2019 school year, meaning they missed at least 10 percent of the school year. Students who are absent that often are labeled “chronically absent,” though there is no similar description for teachers who frequently miss school.

The figures, provided by the School Department through a public records request, cover all reported absences, including sick and personal days, as well as occasions when teachers were attending a professional development training. The district didn’t separate long-term absences — like maternity leave or extended illnesses — which may account for why dozens of teachers missed more than 50 days during the year.

At least 300 teachers — about 15 percent of the city’s educators — missed from 18 to 30 days last year, sparking concern from city leaders that some may be taking advantage of a generous provision in their union contract that allows them to receive up to 15 sick days a year, and roll unused days over. Teachers also get two personal days a year.

In five of the country’s seven largest school districts, including New York City’s and Miami-Dade County’s, teachers are allowed 10 sick days each year, according to union contracts published by the National Council on Teacher Quality. Among New England cities, Boston and New Haven mirror Providence with 15 sick days, while Hartford gives teachers 20 sick days.


Raegen Miller, a research adviser at FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, said it’s clear that student outcomes can take a hit when children are exposed to too many substitute teachers. In Providence’s case, a shortage of substitutes in recent years has left school district leaders scrambling to find any adult to monitor students on days when teachers are absent.

“When the regular teacher is absent, the replacement teacher is not necessarily able to keep the instructional ball rolling,” Miller said.

Rhode Island is the only state that agreed to track teacher attendance as part of its federal accountability plan under the Obama-era Every Student Succeeds Act. After the state released its first batch of teacher absenteeism rates, following the 2017-2018 school year, Mayor Jorge Elorza and School Department officials said the results were unacceptable.

In January, Elorza and then-superintendent Christopher Maher warned teachers they could face discipline for abusing sick time. At the time, the district released a chart showing teachers were far more likely to be out of work on Mondays and Fridays.

Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union, said she has worked with the city to address absenteeism.

“Any teacher found abusing sick time or, that had established a pattern, was brought to human resources for a pre-disciplinary hearing, due process and some have received consequences, including loss of pay,” Calabro said in an e-mail.


But Calabro also said she believes the absenteeism data provided to the Globe are flawed. She suggested absences for professional development and bereavement, as well as personal days, should not be counted. Around 230 teachers — or about 10 percent of the union — used at least 18 sick days.

Calabro has also said she’s open to discussing changes in the union contract with Infante-Green, but it’s unclear if the state plans to target sick days during collective bargaining. The union’s contract expires next year.

Aside from negotiating a reduction in sick days in the union contract, some districts have agreed to pay teachers to avoid using sick days, according to Marguerite Roza, director of Georgetown’s Edunomics Lab.

Roza said one technique has been to cut teachers a check at the end of each school year for any sick days they don’t use. Providence pays a portion of unused sick time to teachers when they retire.

Other districts, Roza said, have attempted to assign high-ranking employees to fill in as substitutes, striking fear in teachers who might not have a good reason to call in sick.

“If you’re the kindergarten teacher and the substitute is the superintendent, you might think twice about taking the day off,” Roza said.

Roza said using a high number of substitute teachers can be a financial hit for any school system. Providence pays $150 a day for substitutes in their first year on the job, and $200 a day for those with more than one year of experience.


For the upcoming school year, the district expects to spend more than $7 million on substitutes.

Infante-Green has not said how the state plans to address teacher and student absenteeism, except to say all schools will begin using software that informs parents when their children or their kids’ teachers are missing school too often.

Elorza was more direct. In a statement, he said it’s clear “that our teachers must be present and ready to teach in order for our students to succeed.”

“Instilling a culture of accountability within our schools is a critical piece of providing every student a quality education that prepares them to achieve in the classroom and beyond,” Elorza said. “We expect the turnaround process to prioritize solutions to this issue.”

Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.