Students can’t learn if they’re not in school. Teachers can’t teach if they’re not in school. The difference is that substitutes can fill in for teachers, but are too many teachers taking too many days off from their jobs?

According to an article posted by West Virginia MetroNews last week, on any given day 6% of West Virginia’s public school teachers are not in their classrooms. According to a spreadsheet accompanying the story, 52.75% of teachers were absent 10 or more days during the 2018-19 school year. About 10.9% of teachers were absent 20 days or more.

McDowell County schools reported that 88.73% of teachers missed 10 or more days. Ohio County had the lowest rate of absences exceeding 10 days at 37.38%. It was the only county where the rate was below 40%. Fifteen counties had 10-day absence rates in the 60s and 70s.

Here in this area, the 10-day absence rate was 68.06% in Mason County, 68% in Putnam County, 64.44% in Lincoln County, 50.11% in Wayne County and 42.36% in Cabell County.

“The impact is that kids need to be in their classrooms and teachers need to be teaching in those classrooms for student achievement rates to go up,” state Superintendent Steve Paine said on MetroNews’ “Talkline” program.

Paine told Talkline he wanted to make the point that teaching is a very challenging vocation.

“They care. It’s a hard job, and very stressful,” he said. “The second thing is, they’re missing too much school.”

The easiest response to these numbers is righteous indignation. How dare these public employees abuse policies allowing them to take so much time off work? Paine told MetroNews that private industry also has incentives to get people to show up for work. The first response to that is that some companies might provide specific incentives to prevent absenteeism, but for many in this area, the incentive is continued employment.

Let’s step back from the numbers and look at the bigger picture. There can be many reasons for absence: childbirth, illness, child care, family needs, medical and dental needs, car trouble ... the list is long. It would not be surprising if teachers, especially those in the lower grades, have higher absentee rates given the number of children who come to school sick and spread their germs to all they come in contact with. And counties with the highest absentee rates tend to be rural ones where health care options are more limited.

We also need to know if the problem is spread through all grades or if it is worse in elementary, middle or high schools. Is absenteeism higher among men or women? Do service personnel have the same rate of absenteeism?

Also, it’s not like teachers, cooks or other school employees can come in late and work later to make up for time lost to a doctor appointment or a family emergency.

Then there is the question of burnout. Teachers are expected to do more than they did a generation or so ago. They are close to vulnerable children caught in less-than-ideal family situations, and that can take a toll on a person. Sometimes people need a day off to get away from the madness around them.

What we have here is an overview of the problem of teacher absenteeism. We won’t know the true nature of the problem until we dig down into the numbers and learn the why behind the what. It’s best to hold off on proposing solutions until we understand the reasons behind the problem.