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WARWICK, R.I. — Forty-three percent of Warwick public school teachers were absent for 10 or more days last year — in a city that allows teachers up to 90 days of sick days a year.
Of Warwick’s 891 teachers, 383 were out for 10 days or more during the 2018-19 school year because of sickness, bereavement, maternity leave, legal matters or long-term illness, Superintendent Philip Thornton said this week. Those figures exclude field trips and teacher training.
“Forty-three percent of any workforce out 10 days or more is going to raise concerns for our main mission of teaching and learning,” Thornton told the Globe. “We have 180 school days, and we have to make every day count.”
The Warwick teacher’s contract allows up to 90 sick days a year — a provision that Thornton called an “anomaly” and a “legacy of the contract.”
Most districts offer 10, 12, or 15 days of sick time per year, Thornton said. “Ninety days does stand out and remains problematic,” he said. “We have some folks that are never absent, and we have other folks that absolutely abuse the system.”
But Darlene Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, said she doesn’t think teachers are abusing the system. “You can never predict the vicissitudes of life,” she said. “People get sick.”
Netcoh emphasized that the absenteeism data include Warwick teachers who are out on maternity leave or dealing with cancer and other long-term diseases. “So it’s not just people who are out sick for a day here and there,” she said.
Also, Netcoh said the Warwick school district has “sick buildings.” For example, she said teachers were coughing up blood and suffering other problems before a new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system was installed at Warwick Veterans Junior High School a couple of years ago.
“Pilgrim High School was built on a swamp,” she said. “It has had squirrels in the walls.”
And last year, the school district eliminated the night shift for custodial services, Netcoh said. “So, obviously, during the cold and flu season, desks and door handles were not being wiped down,” she said, and that lack of cleanliness “absolutely” contributed to teacher absences last year.
Thornton said the school district has restored night shifts for custodial work. “I would not correlate occasional pest control issues with teacher absenteeism,” he said.
And while he agreed the absentee totals stem in part from maternity leaves and long-term illnesses, Thornton said, “The driving factor to me is the 90 days of sick time and some people taking advantage of that.”
Netcoh said other districts, including Cranston’s, allow similar amounts of sick time, although they may use different wording in their teacher contracts.
“Ours might be the only one that blatantly says 90 days,” she said. “But it’s not actually an anomaly if you look at other contacts in the state.”
Timothy C. Duffy executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said a few other school districts in the state have “fairly liberal” sick time policies, but he knows of no other local district that would allow teachers to take 90 sick days and be absent for half the school year.
“That is the outlier in Rhode Island,” he said.
The Globe reported last month that in Providence, at least 300 teachers — about 15 percent of the city’s educators — missed from 18 to 30 days last year. A provision in that city’s teacher union contract allows them to receive up to 15 sick days a year, and roll over unused days. Teachers also get two personal days a year.
In five of the country’s seven largest school districts, including New York City and Miami-Dade County, 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.
The Rhode Island Department of Education recently began tracking how many teachers miss 18 days or more in a school year — which it defines as “chronic absenteeism.”
The most recent state figures, for the 2017-2018 school year, are aggregated by school and not by district. The data show that while some Warwick schools had no chronically absent teachers, 25 percent of the teachers at Wyman Elementary and 18 percent of the teachers at both Oakland Beach Elementary and Warwick Veterans Junior High School were chronically absent.
Netcoh, who said she has used only a handful of sick days in her 29 years as a teacher, said the contract provides an incentive to reduce sick time: When teachers take more than five sick days in a year, they must pay $21.53 per sick day going forward, but they pay nothing if they take five sick days or fewer.
In the last round of contract talks, the administration proposed limiting teachers to 18 sick days while offering temporary disability insurance and a “sick bank,” where teachers could pool unused sick time for use by other teachers, Thornton said.
But an arbitrator ended up ruling that the 90 sick days would stay in the contract, he said. The current three-year contract expires in August 2020.
Thornton said the “sick bank” system has worked well in other districts. But Netcoh said the union disliked the proposal because a panel of administrators and teachers was going to decide whether teachers would be able to dip into the sick bank, and it raised privacy concerns.