Gov't workers' favorite sick day: Friday

On any given Friday, more Central Florida classrooms are led by substitute teachers than on any other day of the week. That's because teachers are calling in sick most often on Friday, an Orlando Sentinel analysis of school-district data found.

The trend held true for all counties except Osceola, where Monday barely edged out Friday for most popular day to call in. Without exception, Wednesday -- an early-release day for students -- was the least likely day for teachers to be out.

Educators say they're aware of the trend.Osceola County administrators noticed it because they've run out of substitutes during the past year, particularly around holidays and on Fridays and Mondays, Superintendent Blaine Muse said. He wants to find ways to solve the problem by working with the teachers union during upcoming negotiations, he said.

Top administrators say they operate on an honor system when it comes to sick days, so they don't know whether teachers are calling in when they're not ill. Most say they trust their teachers.

"I wish we didn't have as many absences on Friday, but you can't challenge someone's need for a sick day," said Volusia schools Superintendent Margaret Smith, whose district last year had 35 percent more teachers out sick on Fridays than Wednesdays. "It's not an area I want to make an issue of."

'Mental-health days'

Mental-health days disguised as sick days are not unique to Central Florida schools -- or to schools in general. The Friday and Monday flu is common in all workplaces, said Robert Trumble, professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of the school's Virginia Labor Studies Center.

Trumble compared employees claiming they're sick when they aren't to taking pencils home from work or surfing the Internet on the job.

"It is cheating, but it's the type of thing you sort of get used to," he said. "Bigger places recognize this happens, so they have to plan for it."

The difference between teaching and many other professions, however, is that schools must scramble to find substitutes when teachers call in sick, creating an expense for financially strapped districts and a hassle to fill the openings. A substitute's daily pay can range from $60 to $100.

More important, some experts say, student learning suffers when regular teachers aren't in their classrooms.

Raegen T. Miller, while studying at the graduate school of education at Harvard University, co-wrote a paper on the effect of teacher absences on student achievement. His conclusion: Students did worse in math the more days their teachers were out.

"Of course it's completely common sense that if teachers miss a lot of school, students are going to have difficulty getting a grip on the curriculum, especially in math," said Miller, a former high-school math teacher.

Miller said he knows of substitute teachers who specialize in working just Fridays and Mondays because the demand is so great. His August 2007 study found that teacher-absence rates were nearly three times as high as those of managerial and professional employees, perhaps in part because sick kids infect teachers. The study also concluded that some teachers were likely calling in sick to get a long weekend.

Miller's study found that it helps for school districts to offer incentives.

InSeminole County, the school district since 1996 has offered cash to instructors who have perfect attendance. Teachers can earn up to $625 annually for not missing a workday, said Stephen Bouzianis, director of human resources for the district.

Seminole did not provide specific information about the sick days teachers took last year, but district data show that it had a disproportionate number of substitutes on Fridays.

Still, Bouzianis said the program is working, based in part on the rising number of teachers with perfect attendance. Seminole Education Association President Gay Parker agreed.

"The teachers who need the money will do anything they can to get that incentive money," Parker said.

Sandy Leach Rushlow, president of the Osceola Classroom Teachers Association, said she couldn't comment because her district hasn't provided the union with definitive data.

"We're trying to look at new, more accurate tracking of absenteeism," Rushlow said.

Orange County Classroom Teachers Association President Mike Cahill denied that Friday sick days are a problem. Teachers have no financial incentive to call in sick because they are allowed to roll over unused days toward their retirement. "It's not an issue," Cahill said.

Last year inOrange County, though, substitutes were called in because of teacher illness 30 percent more often on Fridays than on Wednesdays.

The need was so great that substitutes who agreed to work right before and after a weekend or a holiday had their names entered in a raffle to receive prizes such as iPods and gift certificates to local restaurants, said substitutes Rudy Darden, 27, and his wife, Jessica, 23.

This past Good Friday inOrange County, for example, 1,308 substitutes were requested -- 540 because teachers called in sick, said Dylan Thomas, a district spokesman. That's about 25 percent more sick teachers than on an average Friday.

Working sick?

Andrew Spar, president of the Volusia Teachers Organization, said teachers don't like being out and often push themselves to come to work sick. By Friday, he said, they may need a long weekend to recuperate.

"People tend to take off more on Fridays and Mondays than they do on other days, and teaching is no exception," Spar said.

District administrators are quick to point out that they do their best to recruit and train qualified substitutes, including retired teachers.

That's no consolation for some parents.

Tammy Owens, chairwoman of theVolusia County District Advisory Committee, said that when her mildly autistic son's eighth-grade teacher is absent, it "upsets the whole system." The kids don't relate to a substitute the same way as to their regular teacher, she said, and lessons are more likely to consist of work sheets or movies.

"All the kids act differently," said Owens, who also has a daughter in middle school. "All the expectations are different. He [her son] knows they don't expect him to follow through and he can do anything he wants."

David Lee Finkle, a language-arts teacher at Southwestern Middle School in DeLand, said it's such a hassle to create lesson plans for a sub that he would rather teach than take off when he's sick.

However, Finkle said, he understands how a teacher might feel the need to play hooky once in a while.

"I think sometimes you do need a mental-health day," said Finkle,Volusia County's 2005 teacher of the year.


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