Philly teachers say they are penalized when they take sick days; now thousands demand a change to the district’s policy

Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, organized by the Caucus of Working Educators, are petitioning for an end to the district's controversial sick leave policy.

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Jessie Shapiro speaks into a microphone in front of protesters at the School District of Philadelphia

Jessie Shapiro, an ESL history teacher at Lincoln High School, described how having to take off work for a dental procedure led to her working with a cold because of the district policy that penalizes teachers for using their sick days at a protest at district headquarters on Feb. 29, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Teachers rallied outside the School District of Philadelphia board meeting Thursday to protest the district’s 3-5-7-9 absence policy.

Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, organized by the Caucus of Working Educators, delivered a petition with more than 2,000 signatures to board members with the hope of ending the controversial rule.

Kate Sannicks-Lerner is a teacher at Julia de Burgos Elementary School and has taught for more than two decades. She struggles to make sense of the rules around being absent due to illness.

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“It’s confusing,” she said.

Sannicks-Lerner shared that most educators don’t really know what the policy means or how it works. She said teachers can feel frustration and anxiety when they need to take time off because they are sick or have a family emergency.

Teachers are allowed 10 sick days each school year, but when they use them, Sannicks-Lerner said she and other educators and support staff are penalized with an “occurrence” for each use. No matter if they are sick or caring for a family member, an “occurrence” counts whenever a teacher takes off anywhere between one and three consecutive sick days.

After they use the time off once, twice, and then at three times they reach three separate occurrences.

The third occurrence could lead to escalation of discipline that includes conferences, memos and write-ups, and the fifth and seventh could bring yet more penalties.

Despite her dedication to the district, Sannicks-Lerner said she currently faces penalties under the district’s 3-5-7-9 occurrence policy because she used her sick leave to be absent from work.

Right now, she is on her fifth occurrence due to absences on five separate occasions this year.

“We don’t feel that we should be punished just because we become ill or a family member becomes ill and we need some time off to take care of ourselves,” Sannicks-Lerner said.

Kate Sannicks-Lerner smiles, posing for a photo
Kate Sannicks-Lerner, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and Working Educators Caucus member and teacher at Julia de Burgos Elementary School. (Courtesy of Kate Sannicks-Lerner)

“The 3-5-7-9 occurrence policy is very punitive, and it doesn’t take into account the fact that we’re just human beings just like everybody else, trying to make it each day and take care of our family,” she added.

Sannicks-Lerner said the next step after seven occurrences is a “204,” a memo that goes into the teacher’s permanent personal file.

According to Sannicks-Lerner, “after nine occurrences they can seek to suspend you with or without pay or just terminate your employment,” which she says is drastic and is why it has educators outraged.

“We are looking to just get rid of that policy.”

The School District of Philadelphia responded with statistics that show teacher attendance has improved.

According to the district from 2021-2022 to 2022-2023, the percentage of teachers who were present at least 90% of the time went up 7 percentage points.

The School District released this statement that reads in part, “The district has identified teacher attendance among the conditions for success we are tracking and on which we are focusing efforts to improve.”

The district also pointed to their guidelines for school leaders to monitor teacher attendance and provide support.

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“The goal of these conversations is to encourage attendance and provide support when needed, similar to encouragement and support we provide to students about their attendance,” they said in the statement.

Despite the district’s resistance, protesters hope their message is taken to heart.

“We call on the district to serve our families the way we are asked to serve our students,” teacher Kevin Watkins said when he spoke to the crowd at the rally.

“We take care of everyone else’s children. We love them like our own, and we just want the same love and respect that we give to our children and the families of our students. You know, let us take care of ourselves and let us take care of our kids so we can be the best that we can be,” said Sannicks-Lerner.

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