LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Monday was an unplanned day of school and work for most Kentuckiana students and their teachers. They're making up for the many snow days winter has thrown our way but on even a "normal day," a surprising number of students are spending it without their normal teachers in the classroom.
Over the course of the past several months, WAVE 3 sought out teacher attendance records from both sides of the Ohio River and the results of our investigation show just how often teachers are missing school.
Almost anyone will tell you when you have a great teacher in the classroom, you add to the students' education, but if you take that teacher out of the equation, there is serious concern, according to Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett.
"Our hope is that every child in the State of Indiana has the advantage of having that inspired and inspiring teacher in front of them, working with them, advancing their growth every day that child is in school," Bennett said.
Bennett is fighting a problem that very few people even realize exists.
"The average student is with a substitute teacher, roughly the equivalent of one academic year in a 13-year career," he said. "We know that the quality of instruction diminishes and frankly the continuity of instruction diminishes."
Now some are saying enough is enough.
"We're somewhere between 92, 93% attendance for our teachers," said Chief Operating Officer of Greater Clark County Schools, Marty Bell. "That is not acceptable."
Bell says absent teachers cost us all.
"First of all, it impacts student instruction, which, that is our first priority," he said. "The second way it impacts us is that when a teacher's not in a classroom, we have to hire a substitute so it adds cost to the school system."
Data obtained by WAVE 3 shows teachers in Greater Clark used an average of almost 14 days of leave last school year. That's an attendance rate of 92.47%, far below student attendance at 95%.
Nick Weise, the head of the Greater Clark Education Association teachers union, points out that number includes all teacher absences, including sick leave, disciplinary action and professional development days. He added that teacher attendance is a problem that the union is currently talking with the administration about how best to address.
However, in school system, after school system - without exception - WAVE 3's investigation shows students attended school at a greater rate than their teachers.
"We constantly are working with our children to raise student attendance because if you're not there you can't learn," said Bullitt County Schools Director of Human Resources Jennifer Wooley.
Wooley says there are a lot of legitimate reasons behind that system's teacher attendance rate of 92.9% including that teachers get sick, their families get sick and sometimes emergencies pop up. She works hard to provide a list of good, quality subs, who are trained to be in the classroom.
Still Wooley says several times a week, school leaders are left scrambling.
"On average, there's probably still a classroom or two a week - at least - that goes unfilled," Wooley said.
Now administrators at Bullitt County Schools, like Freedom Elementary Principal Marcella Minogue, are trying to raise teacher attendance rates.
"The incentive is there to just say, 'We're intentionally going to work hard to be here,'" Minogue said. "'If you get up, have a little headache, or a sore throat, instead of taking that day, let's see if we can get in.'"
Higher teacher attendance is also on the minds of Jefferson County Public Schools leaders over the last few years.
"We consider it to be very important," said Bill Eckels, JCPS Executive Director of Human Resources. "It's one of our quality indicators that we have for the district as a whole. We track it a couple of different ways and we stay on top of it."
JCPS is the only school system we found where teacher attendance at each school is actively tracked at a district level and it's also the local district where teacher attendance is closest to that of its students.
In that system, students attend at a rate of 94.25 % and teachers attend at a rate of 94.03%.
"We talk it up a lot," Eckels said. "We try to push the awareness out there that we need people to come to work and there are financial incentives if you do come to work."
Dr. Bennett says in the Hoosier state, school systems are going to have to figure out a way to keep teachers in the classroom or be held accountable.
"When we ratchet up school accountability in this state as we intend to do, we believe that will be the ultimate test," he said, "because it will put further pressure on school corporations to make sure their brightest and best are in front of their children every day."
Everyone points out this is not an issue for all teachers but there are chronic abusers.
Teachers union leaders also point out that it's more stressful than ever to be a teacher and stress breeds illness.
"We pick up a lot of illnesses from the kids," said Jefferson County Teachers Association President Brent McKim. "It's a little breeding factory for illness so that's an occupational hazard for a teacher."
McKim adds school systems should look at low teacher attendance rates at schools as a symptom of problems with that school's leadership.