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Adverse weather policy devalues teachers

Snowy roads [1]Central and Eastern North Carolina experienced what is, at least by our standards, a significant amount of snow Tuesday evening and on through Wednesday morning. It was at least enough to cancel public schools in impacted counties and districts, though it often doesn’t take even that much snow to cancel or delay school around here. Sometimes even the threat of snow is enough or, as we saw recently, brutally cold weather.

My friends and family from the north often laugh at the way we respond to winter weather, but it makes perfect sense: as a rare occurrence, we simply don’t have the equipment and resources to deal with such weather. Even if it’s just a light dusting, it’s much safer for everyone involved to shut down business as usual, including school, and let it pass. Better safe than sorry, the old saying goes.

Much safer, that is, for everyone except our teachers, not to mention other public school employees. Rather than allowing teachers a “snow day,” North Carolina puts “absences” due to inclement weather under the category of vacation leave.The North Carolina Public Schools Benefits and Employment Policy Manual states, “Employees may elect to use annual vacation leave for absences due to adverse weather conditions only on days when students are not required to attend school due to adverse weather conditions.”

To take a specific example, the Inclement Weather Procedures for Wayne County Public Schools, which canceled classes for this round of winter weather, expresses this policy in clear terms. “In the case of early dismissal or school cancellation,” the choice for non-essential employees, which includes teachers, is either to go to work or not. If work is the choice, then the teacher must be in within two hours of normal start time. If the teacher can’t make that window or chooses not to come into work, then he or she has the “option” of taking either an annual leave day or leave without pay for the absence.

The Inclement Weather Procedures for Wayne County Public Schools makes it clear that the “choice is yours. The district respects your right to make the best decision for yourself.” Indeed, it is stressed, “The worst consequence of choosing not to travel [into work] would be the loss of a day’s pay. This is a small price to pay for safety and continued healthy service.”

It’s not really a small price to pay, though. According to the North Carolina Public Schools Benefits and Employment Policy Manual, annual vacation leave is encouraged to renew “physical and mental capabilities and to remain fully productive.” For a teacher who has been employed less than five years, vacation leave accrues at a rate of 1.17 days per month. The rate scales upward according to years of service, topping out at 2.17 days per month for teachers who have twenty years or more under their belt. That’s not a whole lot of vacation time, and it can easily be eaten up by school closings. The other option is, of course, to take leave without pay. We all know by now that teachers in North Carolina rank almost at the bottom nationally when it comes to salary. Sacrificing a day’s pay may not seem like a big deal in from a policy perspective, but for some teachers it may decide whether to pay a bill on time or not. Teachers may retain the choice to come into work when bad weather strikes, but it remains, in many ways, a forced choice.

We’ve heard a lot this past year about the plight of public school teachers in North Carolina, and the general sense is that they are devalued, that they are not treated as the professionals that they are. Requiring teachers to come into work in adverse weather conditions or take vacation or unpaid leave is one more example of that devaluation. Of course, the need to do work doesn’t stop with the weather, but in virtually every other profession trust and common sense dictate that that work can be done in the safety of one’s own home, if necessary. Teachers should be allowed the same deference, for their safety and that of everyone else.

(Dr. Hollis Phelps is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College.)