Dear Cobb Schools, Please trust educators not to abuse their sick days

In a column today, a Cobb County educator writes about she considers undue pressure on school district employees to limit absences. Some Cobb County School District employees are at the point where they’re delaying doctor’s appointments and failing to take care of themselves or their families to avoid running afoul of the HR warnings about too much time off, she says.

In this piece, she describes the consequences of her own decision to schedule an important doctor’s appointment until Cobb dismissed schools for winter break last Friday.

Dear Cobb County School District:

There is a cruel punishment, with which I think we are all familiar, that I cannot stomach due to its astronomical level of injustice -- when an entire class gets penalized for the misbehavior of one or two students. For instance, a teacher takes recess away from the whole class just because a few kids talked in line. As a child development expert, I am not a fan of punishment in general, but that one is for sure among the worst. 

Unfortunately, it reminds me of what the school district is inflicting upon its employees during this holiday season, right alongside those “We hope you enjoy your well-deserved break. Happy holidays!” emails. 

Recently, because of your concern for money lost due to the use of substitutes when teachers are absent, you’ve begun to put tremendous pressure on all principals and administrators to punish us for our absences, no matter the reason. As educators who care deeply about our jobs, many of us have stories about the harm inflicted upon us with the warnings, notes in our performance evaluations and disciplinary letters. I would like to share my own as an example. 

As an educator with a disability, I try to ensure my days off for medical exams and procedures have the least impact possible on my team and students. I schedule during holiday breaks, after-work hours, weekends when possible, and now, as it turns out, I wait even when it’s not safe for me do to so. I do all of this because I love my students and my job. 

I often put them both before myself even though I know it’s important to take care of me, so I can take care of others. That is the kind of employee I am, as are so many others in education. We often put other peoples’ children before our own and we also sometimes put the job before our health. 

Despite this level of dedication, many of us received a letter from you the day before we left for winter break informing us that disciplinary action may be taken if we exceed the number of absences the district deems “reasonable.”

Now, I am a stickler for rules and respect policy that’s fair. In fact, it was because of my dedication and adherence to policy that I waited to schedule an important doctor’s appointment until Friday, Dec. 21, the last day before winter break after the close of the school day. It was an appointment to address high blood pressure that was not responding to medicine. When I scheduled this appointment a couple of months ago, I focused only on the district’s best interests, making sure it was on Friday after school so that I would not need to be absent from work. 

So, when the EKG turned up abnormal on my Friday appointment and the doctor insisted I see a cardiologist “STAT,” it was too late for the referral coordinator to reach anyone. Her next option was to try and find someone who would see me on Monday, which was Christmas Eve. 

I went home with medication to slow my heart rate over the weekend, told not to be alone, and made to wait a very scary 48 hours to see if it would be possible to get into see the cardiologist on Christmas Eve. But no one was answering phones when the referral coordinator tried to get me in to see someone on Christmas Eve.

The referring doctor told me to try again for an appointment with the cardiologist later this week. I was on my own finding an appointment as the kind referral coordinator would be out on holiday vacation. In the meantime, I was advised to try to stay calm, and report to the emergency room if I had trouble breathing. 

As I struggle through this very frightening time, I realize this all could have been taken care of last week if I was less concerned about the Cobb County School District and more concerned about my life. My doctor’s office had several openings earlier last week; I chose not to take them since they would entail an absence. 

With an earlier appointment, the referral coordinator would have been able to get me into a specialist before the end of week and without the anxiety-ridden intrusion into this holiday break. The cardiologist would have been able to tell me whether the abnormal EKG is, in fact, an enlarged left ventricle or simply a blip that means nothing. 

As I spend my holidays writing this letter, trying so hard not to be scared as I wait, I hope your recent unreasonable emphasis on your attendance policy also ends up being just a blip on the radar that you will stop using as punishment for those of us who haven’t misbehaved. 

While I recognize the need to lay down the law for the few employees caught in Facebook photos at Times Square in New York on a Friday or Monday when they called in sick, most of us utilize the days for “reasonable” concerns. I do not think you want to lose those of us who commit our lives to helping students succeed.

So, please trust us enough to determine when we must “reasonably” focus on saving our own lives or the lives of those we love without introducing the threat of job loss. Happy holidays to you, too.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.