When school breaks no longer spark joy

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Parents all over the country have received news this week that next week's Thanksgiving break will not just be the traditional two days but now five—due to the lack of available substitutes for teachers requesting time off.

In Seattle, the school district's week-long Thanksgiving holiday is made all the more noteworthy since it just closed its schools for an unplanned extended Veterans Day break. Apparently, a lot of teachers asked for Friday off after Thursday's Veterans Day, overwhelming the pool of available subs. For its part, the district seemed cool with that, stating in the last-minute communication to parents: "(W)e acknowledge that the high volume...is indicative of the fatigue that educators and students are experiencing, locally and nationwide…"

Let's at least agree to be honest. Has there ever been a time when student fatigue led districts to shut down school? Instead, Seattle was forced into this position because it has a contractual agreement with its teachers union that the district is not allowed to turn down teachers' requests to take time off.

Lest it looks like we're singling out Seattle (okay, we kind of are), while it is the case that no other big-district contract cedes this much authority with the potential to hinder the ability of their schools to operate, it's also true that other districts' lax enforcement of their own existing rules (all described below) probably lead to much of the same sorry result.

Why should anyone care that schools take a little break, especially given all that teachers have been through over the past 18 months? My objections are not intended to suggest that individual teachers, including those in Seattle, aren't well within their rights to request a day off. Teachers have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic in terms of job stress. Their requests for time off are not the problem here. What is galling is when districts prove unwilling or even contractually unable to limit these requests, making it otherwise impossible to keep school open.

What's more galling is that much of the rhetoric about putting educational equity front and center turns out to be just that, rhetoric. It brushes aside the rather inconvenient truth that students of color have already been disadvantaged by having less access to both in-person instruction and technology during COVID than White students, leading to larger learning losses.

We "haves"—which for these purposes includes anyone lucky enough to earn a salary—apparently still have our heads in the sand over the lives of the "have nots." How else to explain Seattle's clueless expression of hope that the "four-day weekend allows for some level of physical, mental and emotional rest and recharging." It might have just as well recommended that parents head to their beach houses.

It's instructive to see how districts approach the issue of teacher leave in their contracts in terms of the potential to cause serious disruption to student learning. Of course, all school districts offer their teachers some leave (about 10-14 days on average). Typically, all but a few days a year are reserved for illness, with many districts (at least on paper) requiring teachers to submit a doctor's note.

Here are the details of contractual agreements regarding leave around holidays of 148 large districts routinely tracked by NCTQ (we track not just their leave policies, but also salaries, evaluation and anything else impacting the health and wellbeing of teachers and the schools where they work). Some districts are clearly in a better position than others to avoid unplanned, last-minute shut downs that disproportionately impact students and their families.