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Without paid family leave, teachers stockpile sick days and aim for summer babies

Karli Myers had her son, Luke, in November, while working as a high school English teacher outside Tulsa, Okla. Her district didn't offer parental leave, so she used sick leave to get more than two months at home with Luke – sick leave she spent years collecting, with a baby in mind.

"So we accrue 10 sick days a year, so I essentially never took a sick day in seven years of teaching to be able to account for all of this," Myers said.

According to a survey by the National Council on Teacher Quality, less than one fifth of the nation's largest school districts offer paid parental leave for teachers. And only a handful of states guarantee it, including Delaware, Oregon and Georgia.

In many places, that leaves a teacher who wants to have a baby with few options: take limited unpaid leave, save up sick leave, hope for colleagues to share their sick leave, pay for their own substitute teacher, or try to time the birth for summer break.

But timing a pregnancy isn't an exact science. Jennifer Williams taught high school English in northeast Oklahoma for several years. During that time, she and her husband decided to try for a second child. That meant getting pregnant in September, for a summer birth, or not at all.

"We had a very narrow window, because we said, 'I need to have this baby as close to summer as we can,'" Williams explained.

When she didn't get pregnant after two Septembers came and went, they called it quits. She said the lack of a paid leave policy ultimately determined the size of her family.

Now, Oklahoma, where Williams and Myers live, has a new law that pays for six weeks of maternity leave for teachers. Maternity leave can only be used by the parent who gives birth, while parental leave can be used by either parent.

Oklahoma isn't the only state overhauling teacher leave policies. At least three other state legislatures – in South Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas – also adopted some form of paid maternity or parental leave this year.

The case for paid parental leave for teachers

In Newark, Del., middle school instructional coach Casey Montigney remembers the stress of having her first son, Emerson, in the middle of the school year with no guaranteed leave. She was determined to spend the first 12 weeks with her baby, so she scraped together her sick time and her short-term disability and FMLA leave — but that only added up to five weeks. Montigney said she ended up going without pay for seven weeks.

By the time she had her second son, Sullivan, Delaware had passed a 12-week paid parental leave policy. She said it was a game-changer.

"It just refocuses the attention on what the attention should be focused on — you're learning how to raise a human. Like, when you know you can pay your mortgage and, you know, you can go grocery shopping and not need to worry too much about that budget and everything else, it just makes a huge difference."

And the benefits of paid leave go beyond peace of mind.

"Postpartum, there is a lot going on with the mother's body, both physiologically and mentally," said Dr. Tamika Auguste, an OB-GYN in Washington, D.C., and chair of the foundation for the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

"Though childbirth is natural and it's been going on since the beginning of time, we also need to recognize the effect that it has on a woman's body."

Overall, the data on the benefits of paid maternity leave bear out: improvements in worker morale and retention, lower infant mortality rates and improved physical and mental health outcomes for mothers and children. Better mental health for mothers has also been tied to lower maternal mortality rates.

And with Black maternal mortality rates more than twice as high as white mortality rates, paid leave can make a real difference to teachers of color.

"We see a large number of maternal mortality in the postpartum period," Auguste explained. "And if these women don't have ... leave, we are contributing to the worsening of Black maternal mortality, brown mortality in this country."

The benefits even extend into the classroom.

"Certainly, teachers' mental health has a discernible impact on student learning and well-being," said Abigail Swisher, director of policy and programs at the National Council on Teacher Quality. "We know in classrooms where teachers show depressive symptoms, their students are impacted both in terms of their social-emotional wellbeing and their learning, actually. And I think that that's a powerful reason that we should be concerned about teachers who don't have access to paid leave."

And while paid leave is a benefit that won't necessarily impact all teachers, Swisher said research indicates it could be a major recruitment tool – especially for certain populations of educators.

"If you're thinking about shortages, particularly of teachers of color, who we know are so needed in our workforce given their positive impact on students, 65% of teachers of color ranked [family support, including maternity leave] as one of their top three financial incentives to recruit and retain teachers. And I think that's a powerful reason to consider this policy."

The logistical challenges aren't unsolvable

Kristin Dwyer lobbied for Delaware's teacher association in 2018, when the 12-week paid parental leave policy was being negotiated. She said it wasn't an easy win — she found herself educating lawmakers on basic biology to get her point across.

"We had one legislator that said — oh goodness — he said, 'Why can't women just plan their pregnancies around summer break?'" Dwyer recalled. "And I [respectfully] said, on the record, in a committee hearing, 'Because our bodies don't work that way.'"

While Dwyer champions guaranteed parental leave, she also acknowledges the big logistical problems it can create. For one, offering leave to non-birthing parents around the country means more teachers out of the classroom.

"If we offered it to dads, if we offered it to parents of adopted children, how many more teachers would be out on leave?" Dwyer said. "And how many more substitutes would we require? You know, how many more days of instruction would be impacted?"

Finding and paying for long-term substitutes is a concern not only for districts struggling to fill positions in the face of teacher shortages, but also for teachers, who worry their students will backslide without a consistent, experienced substitute.

Dwyer says these aren't problems without solutions. In Delaware, the state shares the cost of providing paid parental leave with districts. She also says it's time to change the thinking around how schools employ substitute teachers.

"Change the way we fund substitutes. Rather than per diem, you know, make it a category of employment and hire them like you would hire any other type of employee, right? You keep them on staff and deploy them when needed."

For one Oklahoma teacher, six weeks of leave is a start

Karli Myers, in Oklahoma, had her son, Luke, before her state passed its new paid leave policy for teachers. She said, at the time, the lack of a leave policy didn't make her feel valued as a professional by her state — rather, she felt dehumanized.

"It was really hard, leaving him and then going and spending the day with other people's kids," Myers explained. "You know, you're not supposed to take a puppy away from its mother before six weeks, yet so many moms are having to do just that."

Myers says six weeks of leave is a step in the right direction. But the Oklahoma bill started out at 12 weeks and was whittled down through the legislative process.

"The thought of that 12 weeks maternity leave — I can't even describe to you how much of a miracle that would feel like," Myers said.

She hopes the fight for more leave will continue.

Beth Wallis covers education for StateImpact Oklahoma.

Edited by: Nicole Cohen
Visual design and development by: LA Johnson
Audio story produced by: Lauren Migaki

Copyright 2024 NPR

Beth Wallis
[Copyright 2024 KOSU]