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Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.

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Chairs sit on desks in an empty classroom in Winnipeg on Nov. 2, 2012.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As the school year winds down, so, too, do educational pretenses. Asked the other day if he had any homework, my son scoffed. “Oh, mummy, we stopped working a long time ago.”

Almost as scarce as work are teachers. This is the season of the substitute, as regular teachers vanish and instruction gives way to games, movies and popsicles.

Nothing against a little summer fun, but the erosion of staff and standards happens before every school holiday. In the days before Christmas, a full third of the 63-member staff at my sons’ elementary school was missing, as has been the case on Fridays of this month. Episodic plagues? No, just teachers proving rational choice theory by opting to use, rather than lose, their paid sick days.

The provincial government created this problem and it should fix it. Until 2012, most school boards in Ontario granted teachers 20 sick days with the provision that unused sick days, to a maximum of 200, could be paid out at retirement. Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government put an end to that, claiming the payout represented a $1.7-billion liability that the heavily indebted province couldn’t sustain. The 20 bankable sick days were reduced to 11 non-bankable sick days.

The results were predictable and immediate; suddenly a lot more teachers were getting “sick.” In her 2017 report, Ontario’s Auditor-General notes a 29-per-cent increase in the number of sick days taken by teachers since this legislative change. And it’s not just those 11 sick days (plus any unused sick days from the previous year) that teachers are taking off at full pay. School boards offer a varying number of “miscellaneous” or “family leave” days (at the Toronto District School Board, it’s five) for professional, personal, religious or medical reasons. On top of that, in its most recent collective agreement, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has negotiated up to 120 short-term disability days at 90-per-cent pay. That’s a bit baffling, in a school year of 194 days.

According to the Auditor-General’s report, sick leave as a percentage of total payroll has increased 25 per cent since 2011. School Boards’ Co-operative Inc., a non-profit that advises Ontario’s school boards, estimates that teacher absenteeism is costing them just shy of a billion dollars annually.

But students, administrators and – ironically – teachers themselves also pay a high price. Gone are the days when absent teachers were invariably replaced by substitutes. Thanks to a recent change to their collective agreement, substitute teachers can now work simultaneously for multiple boards, enabling a teacher who has agreed to fill a spot at a downtown Toronto school to change her mind at the last minute when she gets a “better” (closer, less demanding) offer from another board – leaving that downtown school down a teacher.

In the week leading up to the Christmas holidays, seven positions at our school remained unfilled, prompting a familiar schoolwide shuffle in which teachers of rotary subjects (physical education, music, ESL, special education) are dispatched to mind desk-bound kids, while their own classes are cancelled. Classes are consolidated and herded into the gym to watch movies, supervised by a principal or vice-principal, since teachers – according to their collective agreement – can’t be asked to take on more than one class.

In this bizarre misallocation of resources, kids can be forgiven for losing track of school’s main mandate, namely education. How many times have I suggested a movie to my kids, only to be told they’ve already seen it in class? I’m not talking documentaries on the plight of the woodland caribou or the origins of the Quiet Revolution, I’m talking The Incredibles, Garfield and Toy Story.

Kids also cotton on to the fact that “sick” teachers aren’t always sick. Over the years, I’ve heard all about the condo that Ms. X absented herself to furnish and the bridal gown purchase that claimed several days of Ms. Y’s life. No wonder my kids feel quite righteous in their Monday morning lament: “But I don’t feel like going to school.”

A teacher friend of mine noted that the change in sick-day bankability concurred nicely with the growing emphasis on wellness. “Suddenly, my colleagues were taking off ‘mental health’ days – and talking about it openly,” she says.

Mental health is important and no doubt under threat for some teachers in an era of integrated classrooms and progressive discipline (a “corrective and supportive” approach that, in the words of a teacher friend, translates to “no consequences for bad behaviour”). But absent teachers aren’t solving problems, they’re creating new ones. The system shouldn’t incentivize teachers to stay home. It should protect teachers who are sick, reward those who manage not to be and maintain that basic division of labour in which teachers teach, principals administer and students learn.

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