Elena Malloy

About 100 teachers from New Haven Public Schools have missed enough class this year to be considered “chronically absent” — and the school district is looking to understand why.

Roughly 5 percent of teachers have missed more than 10 percent of school days — approximately 10 days — since the start of this school year, which the district defines as chronic absence, according to a letter sent to all of the district’s teachers by the NHPS talent office earlier this month. The Jan. 8 letter announced that NHPS will increase its focus on tracking teacher attendance and finding ways to minimize absenteeism, while supporting teachers who are absent for “legitimate reasons,” such as health issues or family emergencies.

“The purpose of this letter is to remind you that attendance matters for educators just as much as it matters for students,” the letter read. “Your job is a difficult one … but it is also the most important one: As educators, you cause the learning to happen.”

The letter reminded teachers to report all future absences through the district’s online absence management system and outlined administrators’ process for addressing attendance issues. First, they will meet with teachers who have “excessive absences” and determine if the teachers have legitimate excuses. If administrators find the excuses inadequate, they will monitor future absences and have follow-up conversations to hold teachers accountable.

NHPS Talent Director Michael Crocco said while he would not speculate as to why the 100 teachers have been chronically absent, some of their absences have been legitimate.

“We want to be able to support teachers that have legitimate reasons,” Crocco said. “At the same time, we also want to make sure that we’re keeping track of and keeping an eye on teachers who may be abusing their sick days.”

Though Crocco said his office intended the letter as a reminder to all teachers, it was met with criticism by some district teachers, who felt the talent office should have sent it to just those who are consistently absent.

According to Dave Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, the NHPS teachers’ union, many of his colleagues felt slighted by the letter.

“[NHPS administrators] even acknowledged that it’s a relatively small number of folks,” Cicarella said. “But that doesn’t come through. What happens is, they put a policy out and … all [NHPS teachers] get a blast from HR.”

Cicarella said he believes most teachers who fall under the district’s definition of chronically absent are missing school for legitimate reasons and that abuse of sick days is limited to a minority of the chronically absent body.

The letter also reported that the NHPS administration is looking at ways to improve the quality of its substitute teaching pool to ensure that effective instruction can continue when teachers are absent.

Cicarella, who taught in NHPS for 28 years, said securing enough effective substitutes to fill in for absent teachers has long been an issue in NHPS. Alicia Caraballo, vice president of the New Haven Board of Education, said during her former administrative career in the district, which included a stint as principal of Hill Central School, she often struggled to fill the places of teachers who were absent.

“It was highly unusual to get the number of substitutes to match the number of teachers who were out,” Caraballo said. “You were lucky if you got a few.”

Crocco acknowledged that NHPS’s substitute pool could stand to improve and said the administration is currently looking into proposals that include raising the pay for substitutes. At $62.40 a day, substitute compensation in NHPS is $10 to $15 less than it is most other local districts, Cicarella said. That proposal is still being discussed by NHPS administration, Crocco said.

There are 48 schools and 1,800 teachers within NHPS.