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An Austin-area school district says staff need a break, so it’s going to offer mental health days

A teacher in a gray t-shirt with hair that is black and blue points at the front of the classroom while students gather at their shiny desks.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
Full-time Manor ISD staff will be allotted one mental health day each semester, so two per school year.

Manor ISD is rolling out a new benefit during the 2024-2025 school year that will give employees time off to take care of their mental health.

Superintendent Robert Sormani said he thinks it’s important to explicitly offer days off that are dedicated to mental health.

“Even more than just giving people a day off, it’s really giving them permission to say it’s OK to take that day off,” he said.

Sormani, who got the idea for the mental health days from a superintendent in the Houston area, said anyone who has worked in a school knows that many educators feel like they have to be on 100% of the time and show up for their students every single day.

“You get that mentality that you never stop for a moment to take care of yourself and honestly where that leads is you have people that begin to get early burnout, you get people that get sick,” he said. “So, I think it’s important for us as leaders to just get in front of it and say, ‘No, it is OK.' For you to be your best for children, you have to sometimes take care of yourself.”

Full-time Manor ISD staff will be allotted one mental health day each semester, so two per school year. Part-time staff also qualify and their time off will be proportional to the amount they work. A person who works half-days, for example, will get one half-day per semester. The new form of time off is in addition to sick and vacation time that employees already receive.

The district does have some guidelines around when staff can take mental health days. Employees can’t take a mental health day if they’re required to be in school that day for things like mandatory professional development or statewide standardized testing. People are also not allowed to use a mental health day right before or after district holidays or breaks. Additionally, mental health days will not rollover to the next semester.

Sormani said he knows that just because the district is going to offer mental health days, it does not mean people will take advantage of them.

“I know that there are people out there that won’t even take these days and that’s fine — I’m not going to make anyone take a day,” he said. “But I know that there are people out there that will never take a day unless we gave them this permission to do so.”

How can districts help teachers with their mental health?

An assistant professor at UT Tyler’s School of Nursing, who manages a mental health outreach line for educators in East Texas, praised Manor ISD for offering time off specifically for mental health. Barbara Chapman said offering this type of time off lets people know it’s OK if they’re struggling and need a day to themselves.

“What it also will do is it fosters an internal culture that includes accepting mental health awareness as part of the overall healthiness of their people,” she said. “One of the most important things you can ask someone is, ‘How can I support you?’ It’s a powerful statement.”

Sormani said what he hopes to see within Manor ISD is supervisors reminding their staff that this time is now available to them and they should not feel bad about using it.

“I really hope that this turns into something that builds better positive relationships between leaders and staff in all areas of the district,” he said.

Chapman said that while it is a positive step to offer mental health days, there could be some issues with implementation that the district should be mindful of. She pointed out that teachers have such large workloads and are under so much stress that missing a day of school can set them back.

“A teacher doesn’t just work on the normal working hours that we think of. They work after hours, all the time,” she said. “So, the reality of taking a mental health care day requires that a teacher really be prepared and that takes time.”

She said a teacher might also be reluctant to take a mental health day if they’re working with a student who is struggling and they’re not sure if the substitute teacher will be able to support them.

“Will that teacher who is substituting on that day be able to take care of that student or will it require additional work for them when they get back and will that student fall behind? So many teachers just feel like it might not be worth it to take the day,” she said.

Money is tight for many Texas school districts

Chapman said, ultimately, teachers across the country need consistent, on-the-job mental health support.

“That speaks to reducing their workloads, helping put more teachers in place, that speaks to increasing salaries ... because teacher salaries are very low right now,” she said.

Sormani said one reason Manor ISD looked at offering mental health days to staff is because money is tight. Manor ISD, like many school districts throughout Central Texas, is facing a budget deficit in large part because state funding for public education has not kept up with inflation.

Manor ISD is currently looking at offering employees a 1% raise for the next school year but Sormani hopes the district could offer more if the school board calls a Voter Approved Tax Rate Election, or VATRE, this November. If voters approved a new tax rate — which would still be lower than the current tax rate — it would generate enough revenue for Manor ISD to increase staff salaries by 3% of the midpoint of a position’s pay scale, according to the district.

Other Central Texas school districts have also relied on a tax rate election to offer raises and help address budget deficits. Lockhart ISD and Pflugerville ISD voters approved new tax rates last year and the Austin ISD school board is considering calling a VATRE this fall to help cover the cost of raises too.

“So, when you can no longer think about paying people as much as you think you should be able to, you have to start looking at other avenues,” Sormani said. “And part of that is how can we improve the quality of the workplace, the quality of the enjoyment of the workplace? And part of that is just giving people an opportunity to take a break.”

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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