The N.C. Department of Public Instruction classifies about one in five teachers as chronically absent. The absenteeism costs North Carolina schools about $17 million a year to pay substitute teachers, DPI says.

Thomas Tomberlin, director of educator recruitment and support at DPI, presented a report on chronic teacher absenteeism to the State Board of Education earlier this month.

DPI defines chronic absenteeism as a teacher taking 10 or more non-consecutive sick days in a school year. For the 2016-17 school year, DPI labeled 22,121 out of 97,839 teachers chronically absent. Put differently, that’s 22.6 percent of teachers considered chronically absent.

Tomberlin told SBE members chronic absenteeism appears to correlate with schools scoring low on the annual school report card. Schools with an “F” grade had a higher percentage of chronically absent teachers than schools with an “A” or “B.” Similarly, chronic absenteeism seems to correlate with lower EVAAS scores, which is used to measure a teacher’s effectiveness.

Tabari Wallace, the 2018 principal of the year and advisory member of the state education board, said his school district was able to reduce absences with policy changes.

Wallace said chronic teacher absenteeism was a problem in Craven County until a new policy required teachers to get a doctor’s note or provide 60 days’ notice to take off any Monday, Friday, or day after a holiday. After the policy was implemented, teacher absences dropped by 40 percent.

Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said the report on chronic teacher absenteeism is a good start, but more information is needed to identify the causes.

“Until we know why so many teachers are chronically absent, policymakers, in particular, cannot address the problem,” Stoops said.

Tomberlin told board members part of the problem may lie with a misunderstanding of policy. Some local education agencies interpret state extended sick leave policy to allow teachers 20 additional sick days, beyond their accrued 10 sick days.

“Until we have data that say otherwise, we should assume that the extended absences are for legitimate reasons,” Stoops said. “The question then becomes how teachers and administrators better manage student instruction in the absence of the regular classroom teacher.”