Updated, 7:26 a.m.: Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – The overall trend in Norwalk teacher absenteeism is heading in the right direction, Norwalk Public Schools Chief Talent Officer Javier Padilla said Tuesday.
It’s “concerning and alarming” that 83 percent of Norwalk schools have at least 20 percent of their teachers showing chronic absenteeism, he said. “I think that’s where we need to dive in and do additional homework and analysis.”
NPS started its study over concern about escalating substitute costs, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski said, during Padilla’s presentation at the Board of Education meeting.
The study was commissioned as a priority implementation step in the Strategic Operating Plan, to understand Norwalk teacher absenteeism and compare it to state and national averages.
Connecticut has the 12th highest rate of teacher absenteeism in the nation, according to Education Week, he said.
District-wide, Norwalk’s average teacher absences dropped by 1.8 days in one year, from 10.3 in 2016/17 to 8.5 in 2017/18, his PowerPoint states.
“Some have speculated that there’s some halo effect here,” Adamowski said. “When you start measuring something, shining the light on it, people pay more attention to it. Other than that, we have no explanation.”
Looking at individual schools, Padilla’s PowerPoint states:
- Norwalk High School: 9.8 average days missed in 2016/17 and 7.3 average days missed in 2017/18
- Brien McMahon High School: 10.6 average days missed in 2016/17 and 6.7 average days missed in 2017/18
- Nathan Hale Middle School: 11.5 average days missed in 2016/17 and 10.1 average days missed in 2017/18
- Ponus Middle School: 15.3 average days missed in 2016/17 and 10.8 average days missed in 2017/18
- Roton Middle School: 10.9 average days missed in 2016/17 and 7.4 average days missed in 2017/18
- West Rocks Middle School: 9.6 average days missed in 2016/17 and 6.9 average days missed in 2017/18
- Brookside Elementary School: 9.1 average days missed in 2016/17 and 6.2 average days missed in 2017/18
- Cranbury Elementary School: 11.6 average days missed in 2016/17 and 10.4 average days missed in 2017/18
- Columbus Magnet School: 7.4 average days missed in 2016/17 and 7.4 average days missed in 2017/18
- Fox Run Elementary School: 11.4 average days missed in 2016/17 and 8.8 average days missed in 2017/18
- Kendall Elementary School: 11.7 average days missed in 2016/17 and 9.5 average days missed in 2017/18
- Marvin Elementary School: 8.8 average days missed in 2016/17 and 8.9 average days missed in 2017/18
- Naramake Elementary School: 10.5 average days missed in 2016/17 and 8.5 average days missed in 2017/18
- Rowayton Elementary School: 9.1 average days missed in 2016/17 and 8.5 average days missed in 2017/18
- Silvermine Elementary School: 9.1 average days missed in 2016/17 and 9.1 average days missed in 2017/18
- Tracey Elementary School: 11.4 10.5 average days missed in 2016/17 and 6.8 average days missed in 2017/18
- Wolfpit Elementary School: 10.5 average days missed in 2016/17 and 8.8 average days missed in 2017/18
Looking at it by day of the week, there’s a spike on Fridays. In 2017/18:
- Monday: 1,471 absences
- Tuesday: 1,230 absences
- Wednesday: 1,324 absences
- Thursday: 1,284 absences
- Friday: 1,942 absences
The Friday absences are down from 2,409 in 2016/17.
“I have heard anecdotally that may be due to the fact that teachers, because they are trying to have that continuity of instruction, they will wait until Friday to schedule appointments,” Padilla said.
There’s also a spike in May.
May is a busy month for weddings, graduations and other events, Padilla said.
Current state averages are not available, but NPS was at the state average in 2015-16 (9.6 average days) and above state average in 2014-15 and 2013-14, according to Padilla’s PowerPoint. Norwalk High School has the highest rate of chronically absent at 26, with Brien McMahon High School and Nathan Hale not far behind at 26, and Ponus Ridge fourth at 22.
Chronic absences are defined as 10 days or more and does not include medical leave, Padilla said. According to his PowerPoint, nearly 75 percent of Norwalk’s schools have chronic absenteeism.
The “generic body of research on absenteeism” shows that when employees have a sense of teamwork, rather than being lone rangers, attendance is better, Adamowski said. He added that districts which give teachers unlimited sick leave have less absenteeism because people don’t feel they are entitled to sick days.
Norwalk teachers get 15 sick days a year and can roll them over to the next year, eventually getting a payout upon retirement, he said. BoE member Heidi Keyes requested more data, and questioned the motivation for taking days in May.
It’s recommended that NPS keep working to refine its data collection, and enforce policies that are already in place, perhaps by elevating current human resources professionals with additional responsibilities, Padilla said. NPS will be meeting with teachers to understand their reasons for being absent.
There have been discussions about the protocols used when teachers call in to announce an absence, perhaps changing who they contact, Padilla said.
Stratford reduced its absenteeism by having teachers call their direct supervisor, Adamowski said.
Another idea is to develop incentives for employees who have good attendance, and a third-party may be needed to assess claims of illness that require medical leave, Padilla said.
“It’s a lot like worker’s compensation,” Adamowski said. “We are not medically qualified to make determinations so they tend to be made politically.”
Information on the rest of the workforce should be available by late January, Padilla said.
It’s certainly appropriate to review teacher attendance, Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Mary Yordon said at the end of the meeting.
“Teachers are highly committed to being with their students and maximizing instructional time and they do report to school under some pretty extreme circumstances, making sacrifices to be there, despite challenges of some types of illness” Yordon said.
Teachers appreciate recent efforts to address health concerns stemming from the condition of various schools, she said, mentioning moldy tunnels and no heat at Cranbury Elementary School for several days.
There’s contractual language regarding attendance, and “excessive absences are already dealt with, the district has tools to work with employees,” Yordon said. She noted that Stamford published teacher absence data last year that showed their staff “in the same lane, including the Friday spike.”
“I support the idea of elevating the roles of HR professionals who would have the time, the training, the sensitivity to work with teachers to improve what I don’t think is problematic,” Yordon said. “But our teacher absent rates are within the range of the state.”