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  • Mike Miles

Schools are Essential?

Are schools essential? For almost every educator, the answer would be, “of course!” What if “being essential” means that the organization provides such an important service or public good that the suspension of that service will greatly harm the public? Even then, I believe most schools would still claim they are essential. And the public, still raw from the trauma of school closures due to COVID, would undoubtedly agree.


But saying the schools are essential is not the same as acting like they are essential. During COVID, many schools kept their doors closed long after they needed to, leading to greater learning loss that they are now struggling with. I know of no hospitals or police stations that closed their doors during COVID – because they are essential.


O.K., you know what drives me a little crazy? – It’s when the public school districts close when there is a little snow on the ground, and Starbucks is open! Maybe Starbucks fits the definition of being essential, but that would mean much of society is clinically addicted to the vente pumpkin spice, two pump caramel latte.

O.K., let’s put COVID aside – after all, it was a unique event, and our profession could be forgiven for erring on the side of caution and for protecting the workforce. O.K., you know what drives me a little crazy? – It’s when the public school districts close when there is a little snow on the ground, and Starbucks is open! Maybe Starbucks fits the definition of being essential, but that would mean much of society is clinically addicted to the vente pumpkin spice, two pump caramel latte. Starbucks employees find a way to get to work, but Colorado school districts have given up on trying to keep schools open even when the rest of the cities’ businesses are open.


Worse still are districts that enable behavior that suggest individual teachers are not essential. Teachers are essential and need to consistently be at school for their students and colleagues. Yet, many districts allow “docked days” – a day in which a teacher who has exhausted their personal time off allotment can continue to be employed as long as they are not paid for the additional day or days they are absent. When I started as superintendent in the Harrison School District in Colorado Springs and later as the superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District, I asked for a record of the number of docked days employees had been allowed the year before my arrival. I found numerous employees who had been allowed 20, 30, and even 40 docked days. This, on top of the 10 personal days they had already received in a year. On average, these employees had missed approximately 25% of the student-teacher contact days. How essential is a teacher who is allowed to miss one out of every four days??!!


Yes, there are exceptions and unique cases that schools and districts should provide for, but the problem is unfortunately not unique. And now, with the shortage of teachers most schools are experiencing, the problem will get even worse, because most school leaders believe they have no choice than to keep someone who has gone into docked-day status – “a teacher 75% of the time is better than a substitute or vacancy 100% of the time.”


Teachers receive two weeks off at winter break, three days at Thanksgiving, five days at spring break, 6 national holidays, two “academic recess” days, nine personal days, ten professional development days, and 40 days during the summer. As a profession, we need to be clear with people entering the workforce that if one needs more mental health days than that, then the teaching profession – an essential profession – is probably not the right one for them.

I get the benefit-cost analysis focused on the immediate, but collectively we have degraded the profession and continue to do so. The workforce is changing – maybe we should get rid of practices that undermine the professionalization of that workforce.


And now there is a movement to increase the number of mental health days or decrease the number of student-teacher contact days (the movement for a four-day school week, for example). Instead, maybe we should pay teachers a professional wage ($75,000 average salary in Colorado dollars), provide supports for better work-life balance (no work after 4:00 p.m.), provide good benefits, remove most non-instructional tasks or responsibilities (such as student discipline), AND be clear about what it takes to be an effective teacher and what it means to work for an essential organization.


Teachers receive two weeks off at winter break, three days at Thanksgiving, five days at spring break, 6 national holidays, two “academic recess” days, nine personal days, ten professional development days, and 40 days during the summer. As a profession, we need to be clear with people entering the workforce that if one needs more mental health days than that, then the teaching profession – an essential profession – is probably not the right one for them.


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