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Teacher absences cost school boards $649 million

Last Updated Dec 11, 2019 at 9:02 am EST

Teacher absenteeism cost school boards $649 million in the 2017-2018 school year, the most recent time span for which complete numbers are available, CityNews has learned. That’s nearly the cost of a one per cent raise for all educational workers over the course of four years, and one of the biggest hurdles the government and Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) are grappling with at the bargaining table.

The latest numbers mark more than a $150 million increase from just two years prior, when teachers and other educational workers took an average of 12.19 days off, versus 13.08 in 2017/2018.

“The fact is we, taxpayers, will spend about $650 million per year, school boards will see that money not being spent on the front lines; in the classroom, mental health support and renewing our schools, because of the absenteeism of our educators or their workers,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce told CityNews.

“We want to make sure that there’s a bona fide system, a credible system for those that actually need extended leave for sickness or bereavement, but absolutely for those that are abusing the system, we want to make sure there’s some accountability,” he added.

Teachers are currently allotted 11 paid sick days a year, with additional personal and bereavement days are negotiated with school boards on a local level. Up to 120 additional sick days are available as short-term disability leaves, with 90 per cent of salaries covered. According to the minister, not all school boards currently require medical notes in order to access short term disability.

“Originally, for the 120 days, for the extended leave (medical notes) were not required,” Lecce explains. “We’re now, as per the CUPE deal (with educational workers and support staff) made that requirement, and we’re negotiating at the other tables to ensure that we strengthen the integrity of our sick leave program.”

But the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation is challenging the notion of requiring sick notes from its members.

“Sick notes for single day absences aren’t supported even by doctors. They see it as a waste of resources within the medical system,” OSSTF president Harvey Bischof said.

There’s been a marked increase in the use of sick days since 2012. That’s when the previous Liberal government slashed teachers’ allotment from 20 to 11 and ended the practice of allowing them to carry over unused days to following years.

A 2017 report by the auditor-general revealed more than 50 school boards found that usage of sick days increased by about 30 per cent — from nine days in the 2011-2012 school year, to 11.6 days in 2015-2016.

In 2017-2018, Canada’s largest school board – the Toronto District School Board – spent $96.5 million replacing teachers due to illness, religious or personal reasons. TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird says last year’s numbers were very similar, although he could not provide a breakdown.

In 2017-2018, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) spent $33.6 million covering teacher absences, an increase of nearly $7 million over the previous year. For the first two quarters of 2018-2019, the TDCSB realized an 11.1 per cent increase in occasional (supply) teacher costs and an increase in absenteeism for elementary school teachers, principals and VP, education assistants, child and youth workers, and custodians. TDCSB’s high school teachers were the only group to show a decrease in unplanned absences.

We also reached out to the Peel District School Board, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board, York Region School Board, York Catholic District School Board, Halton District School Board, Halton Catholic District School Board, Durham District School Board and Durham Catholic School Board. All refused to provide updated numbers or were non-responsive, despite multiple emails.

But Harvey Bischof said much of those absences across the province, particularly with educational support workers, has to do with violence by students against teachers.

“My members work closest with students, sometimes with the highest needs, who act out in ways that result in my members getting injured,” Bischof said. “So, we’re equally worried about an increase in sick leave usage because it points to a human toll taken on my members who are missing work because they’ve been injured.”

According to a September 2019 study by researchers at the University of Ottawa, 54 per cent of elementary school educational workers they spoke with reported one or more incidents of violence. OSSTF represents educational workers in elementary, high and catholic schools. Of the 703 individuals who reported a significant incident of physical violence in the 2017-2018 school year, 135 individuals –- or about 19 per cent — reported taking time off work.

This is just one of several issues OSSTF is dealing with at the table. The union is fighting against mandatory e-learning courses, increases in class size from 22.5 to 25 and a 1 per cent wage increase cap.

According to Monday’s report from the Financial Accountability Officer, the government is ”increasing class sizes for students in grade 4 through 12 and expanding e-learning for secondary school students” as a means of curbing spending in the medium-term. The FAO aniticipates Ontario’s budget deficit will increase to $8.5 billion in 2019-20, up from $7.4 billion last year.

On Wednesday, OSSTF members from several school boards — including the TDSB, will be engaging in another one-day strike, while ETFO members ramp up their administrative work-to-rule. Elementary school teachers will no longer plan field trips, or attend meeting unless scheduled during the instructional day and an occasional teacher is called in to replace them.

ETFO President Sam Hammond was not available for comment today as both the elementary school teachers and Catholic teachers remain in bargaining. The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association will be in a legal strike position as of December 21.