Paid parental leave at schools is so dire that teachers must hoard their sick days and time their pregnancies around summer vacation

Laura Wright started teaching at the same elementary school she attended as a child in Citrus County, Florida, when she was 21 years old. It was her first teaching job—and she received plenty of advice from the older teachers who worked there about how to handle maternity leave if and when the time came to start a family. 

“When I was younger I had teachers say, you got to have a summer baby, it’s the only way to get the most out of the time with your baby,” Wright told Fortune, adding that the advice was “like insider trade information.”

Now age 37, Wright has two children, and she left that school district in Citrus County, which offers about six weeks of unpaid parental leave, for a teaching position at a fully online school for grades K-12 that offers 12 weeks of paid leave. Wright says when she learned about her current job’s paid leave from a friend, “it sounded like a unicorn,” as well as a school she wanted to support. 

A unicorn, indeed. Only about 18% of the 148 largest school districts in the U.S. offer paid parental leave for teachers—and of the 27 districts that do offer paid leave, variations are plenty, according to a National Council on Teacher Quality report. 

The majority of paid parental leave benefits are only partially paid, shorter than six weeks, and often require teachers to exhaust their paid sick days first, which forces teachers to go without pay should they get sick. Teachers also end up risking their own postpartum health while facing the rising costs of early childcare, which averages to about $1,300 per month. Insufficient paid leave benefits had led to more teachers timing their births for summer vacation—like she’d experienced in Citrus County. 

A lot of these issues held true for Wright, who had wanted to plan her pregnancy for the summer, but her infertility issues—a polycystic ovary syndrome diagnosis—made timing unpredictable. with infertility. Wright believes infertility, which affects one in five Americans, is a struggle many people don’t know enough about, and described the pressure she faced to time her child as “insensitive because it just doesn’t work for everyone.”

She luckily became pregnant with her son, who’s now 10, during her fifth year of teaching and still remembers the way her school’s principal reacted to her news, telling her “you didn’t plan that too smart.” 

At the time, she said, she had five years of employment under her belt and “a really considerable sick day bank filled up.” That sick day bank was 33 days, indicative of the average 10 days of sick pay teachers get each year, and was the only paid parental leave she could access after her son was born. “From mid October until almost the end of January, I didn’t get a paycheck” she said. 

She returned to work when her son was two and a half months old. So while she’s thankful she could rely on her parents to help watch her child, “it was emotionally and mentally hard to leave my baby so young.” 

Making matters worse, exhausting her sick days meant she’d need to attend the slew of postpartum doctor appointments and check-ups for her infant completely unpaid.

Perceptions are changing as more states require paid parental leave 

Naomi Cahn, a professor of family law at the University of Virginia and George Washington University, told Fortune “it’s extremely difficult to time a pregnancy to occur in the summer months for the majority of teachers not covered by paid leave,” but the tide is turning in terms of how the country perceives paid parental leave. 

“An increasing number of states are moving towards requiring paid leave,” Cahn said,  “but it hasn’t been offered even in other female-dominated professions.”

The teaching industry is largely dominated by women: Of the 3.8 million full and part-time public school teachers between 2020 and 2021, 77% were women. Yet, teachers have historically had little to no paid parental leave benefits. Wright, who is also running for an elected position in her county’s school board, believes the benefit needs to expand. “We’re in the business of families,” she said, “yet there’s nothing really set aside for us to have our own family.” 

Currently, only a handful of states require districts to offer paid parental leave, but the list of states is growing: Arkansas recently passed a bill that provides up to 12 weeks of paid leave for teachers under a cost-sharing model between the state and school districts; Tennessee passed a bill that provides six weeks of paid parental leave for families after a birth, stillbirth, or adoption of a child; Oklahoma passed a large education-budget package that includes six weeks of paid maternal leave for teachers; and California has proposed legislation for 14 weeks of paid leave for teachers. 

One key reason it’s hard for school districts to offer maternity benefits is because of how district budgets are organized, Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, told Fortune. “I have empathy for districts because the bulk of their budget is made up of personnel costs for teachers, staff salaries and benefits.” Still, she insisted, “it’s worth looking at the long-term cost of not offering the benefit of paid parental leave,” citing staffing challenges, teacher retention, turnaround costs, and the quality of a school district in the long term. 

Teacher turnover rates are up since the pandemic, with about 23% of teachers leaving their school during the 2022-2023 school year, compared to a roughly 18% turnover rate in 2019, according to a report from ERS, a school systems analysis and design group. And that turnover comes at a cost. According to an analysis by the Learning Policy Institute, the costs of teacher turnover, including recruiting, hiring and onboarding costs, can range from $9,000 in rural settings to $20,000 in urban areas. It’s a cost Peske believes is avoidable, saying “the upfront costs of providing the benefit might prevent larger costs to students and larger costs to the district budget in the future.” 

She was also quick to mention the downsides for teachers who are going without paid parental leave–and how important family benefits are to aspiring teachers. 

“When teachers are not offering paid parental leave,” she said, they have to hoard their sick time, plan to have a child in the summer, or leave their children while they’re very young and come back to school, which “all have quite a cost,” as Wright discovered. 

Beyond that, Peske said, “paid family leave really helps school districts attract good teachers to come to teach in their district.” 

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