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'Pervasive absenteeism': The TDSB says sick days cost the board $213 million last year

The Toronto District School Board Education Centre is seen on Wednesday, August 2, 2023. (CTV News/Siobhan Morris) The Toronto District School Board Education Centre is seen on Wednesday, August 2, 2023. (CTV News/Siobhan Morris)

Sick days taken by permanent employees of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) last year were higher than the provincial average and cost the board $213 million, according to a new report.

The report, which is set to go before trustees at a committee meeting on Tuesday, highlights the “pervasive” level of absenteeism among TDSB staff based on data gathered by School Boards’ Co-operative Inc. (SBCI), a not-for-profit which helps Ontario school boards improve efficiencies and decrease costs.

According to the data, sick calls at the TDSB in the 2022-23 academic year totaled nearly 20 days, compared to the provincial average of about 16. That translates to roughly $213 million in costs, or 8.71 per cent of the board’s total payroll, including the funds needed to staff a replacement teacher. In the 2021-2022 year, sick calls at the TDSB exceeded 20 days, while the provincial average hovered above 16 and cost the board $233 million, or 9.46 per cent of total payroll.

“The high utilization of sick leave at TDSB has far-reaching implications and unintended consequences on the learning achievement of students, and the work experience of staff,” the report noted.

“Existing absenteeism rates create an over-reliance and subsequent pressure on alternate resources, including OTs, Emergency Resource Personnel (ERP), school administrators, department leaders, peers and support staff.”

In Ontario, teachers are entitled to 11 sick days per year at full pay and 120 days at 90 per cent of their salary.

A breakdown of the absence data for the last school year showed that elementary teachers called in sick an average of 20.80 days, secondary teachers an average of 17.99 days, while educational assistants and custodians booked off and average of 27.23 and 25.14 days, respectively.

An excerpt from a TDSB Planning and Priorities Committee report shows the average number of staff sick days taken by board employees compared to the province. (TDSB)

In terms of fill rates, which represent the percentage of absences covered by a supply teacher, elementary schools reached 76.75 per cent last year and high schools reached 74 per cent.

As for why teachers are calling in sick, the report identified a number of internal and external factors, including, but not limited to, socio-economic factors, workplace culture and employee experience, insufficient disability and WSIB resources and “absenteeism acceptance,” defined as a teacher’s “tendency to accept absenteeism, recognizing an effective response to absenteeism without attempting to change it.”

The report noted that there are higher rates of educator absenteeism in areas of the city with higher populations of low-income families, racialized students and students with special education needs.

The TDSB estimates that replacement teacher costs total $6.7 million per day and $106 million annually – roughly $25 million more than the provincial average.

Improvement is being made to fix the problem, however, as the board says its reduced the number of average sick days by nearly one day since 2021. That amounts to a savings of approximately $20 million, not including replacement costs.

“[The] TDSB should be able to reduce its average sick days lost per employee down to the provincial average over time, which would amount to an annual savings of approximately $42 million,” the report noted, adding that the money saved could be reinvested into the school system.

For the province’s part, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said it had funded the hiring of 9,000 additional education staff, including 3,000 teachers, since 2018 and cut certification timelines in half for new teachers.

“All parties have an interest in reducing teacher absenteeism as school boards like TDSB are dealing with educators taking twenty sick days off, in a 194-day work year,” the statement read. “Currently, TDSB has a 32 per cent higher absenteeism rate than other school boards across the province — which affects the quality of learning for children.”

As part of the TDSB's efforts to improve attendance, the board said it will introduce an attendance support program next year to address absenteeism by developing an attendance dashboard and establishing key performance indicators (KPIs) to keep schools staffed.

The board said it has already taken steps to mitigate the issue of absenteeism in the short-term, including placing more nearly 900 occasional teachers into permanent contract positions and expediting the process of hiring staff by onboarding individuals who are currently studying to become a teacher. Top Stories

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