Sick at school? – North Carolina Health News

Linda Rider

By Michelle Crouch

Co-published with Charlotte Ledger

One morning last month, Ben Jacobs, a senior at Myers Park High School, woke up feeling nauseated with a terrible headache. He ran to the bathroom and vomited. Then he pulled himself together and hustled to school before the end of first period.

Jacobs, who had already missed some school because of a medical issue, said he didn’t want to risk another absence in light of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ attendance policy – one of the strictest in the state, according to an informal analysis by The Charlotte Ledger/ NC Health News.

The CMS policy says a high school student who misses more than 10 days of any class – whether the absence is excused or unexcused – will fail the course. To avoid a failing grade, a student must get a special medical waiver or make up the time through a process called “attendance recovery.”

Although the rule has been in place since 1970, CMS is aggressively enforcing it this year as it tries to get students back on track after the pandemic, when absences soared and school performance tanked.

Research shows excess absences – missing 10 percent or more of school days – is strongly linked to lower academic achievement.

The policy is sparking controversy among parents and students who say it encourages students to go to school sick at a time when respiratory illnesses are surging. In addition to the ongoing threat of COVID – which triggers a five-day quarantine under CMS rules – respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and flu are also on the rise.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Erin Garvey, whose daughter is a sophomore at Hough High. “Ten days is not a lot when we have all sorts of illnesses spreading like wildfire. I know absenteeism has gotten out of hand with some kids. But there’s a big difference between kids who are just skipping and a straight-A student whose family says, ‘My kid was sick.’”  

The goal: keep kids in school

Matthew Hayes, CMS deputy superintendent for academic services, said emphatically that CMS does not want sick kids to come to school. At the same time, the district wants to send the message that families need to make school a priority and try to schedule vacations and appointments outside of school time.

Chronic absenteeism leads to lower grades and test scores, less engagement in school and higher dropout rates, research shows.

“If students are not in the classroom, they are missing instruction,” Hayes said. “Even if it’s an excused absence, it still is going to create a gap in the continuation of a student’s learning.”

The CMS policy allows students who are absent for an extended amount of time for medical reasons to apply for a medical waiver with documentation. In addition, missing class for a school-sponsored activity such as a field trip or an athletic competition doesn’t count toward a student’s total absences.

Hayes noted that absences skyrocketed during the pandemic when CMS suspended its attendance rule. About 29 percent of CMS students were “chronically absent” in the 2021-2022 school year – that’s twice as many as before the pandemic. CMS considers students chronically absent if they miss at least 10  percent of days in a school year – or about 18 days.

Since the board reinstated the policy this school year, absences have dropped. In a Nov. 11 Charlotte Observer article, outgoing interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh listed better student attendance as one of his accomplishments, noting that chronic absenteeism is down to about 15 percent today.

Hayes said the attendance policy is not intended to penalize students: “It’s about making sure they have the resources and the knowledge they need in order to be successful, not just for the course they are currently in but also for future courses.”

One CMS high school teacher said he’s glad the district is cracking down. “I had students last year with 30-plus absences. I cannot do my job like that,” he said.

The teacher said he did not want to be named because he feared retribution from school administrators – or from angry parents. “I’ve already been asked by parents to ignore the policy, falsify the recovery of time or allow students to make up the remediation work on their own time,” he said.  

“A really wrong-headed idea”

Although CMS may want sick kids to stay home, students and families said that’s not always what happens.

Jacobs said he recently sat next to a student in class who admitted to having a fever, but who said she was there because of the attendance policy. And Garvey said her daughter returned to school early when she had a cold earlier this year.

“She felt like garbage but went back, and I know she was not the only one. She has several friends who have gone back prematurely because they felt the pressure,” Garvey said.

Meanwhile, some psychologists have another concern: they say the policy is creating unnecessary anxiety among teens with mental health issues, and it’s making kids opt out of getting therapy they need, because they can’t get appointments outside of school hours.

“Our kids are in crisis,” said Kristin Daley, a psychologist at Base Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Charlotte. “With all of the isolation during the pandemic, referrals are through the roof. Ideally, of course, we would love for all of these kids to be seen outside of school hours, but it’s just not feasible.”

Daley said the CMS attendance policy came up at a recent staff meeting in her office, and it has also been a frequent complaint on a Facebook page of Charlotte area counselors, therapists and psychologists. There was even discussion about publishing an open letter urging the district to reconsider the policy, Daley said.

“It just feels like a really wrong-headed idea,” Daley said. “It’s causing families to prioritize compliance to school over their physical health and mental health. Increasing anxiety is not going to improve test scores.”

Other districts more lenient

The Ledger/NC Health News reviewed the attendance policies of other large N.C. school districts as well as the ones immediately surrounding Charlotte and found that the CMS policy is among the toughest.

  • In Wake County, for example, high school students are “referred to the school-based attendance team” if they exceed 20 excused or unexcused absences – double the number that CMS allows. The team will then consider “appropriate interventions to improve the student’s attendance,” according to the district’s policy manual.
  • Cabarrus County schools call for a review (not an automatic failing grade) if a student exceeds eight absences in a semester. The review should consider the circumstances of the absences, other measures of academic achievement and the extent to which the student completed missed work, according to the district’s policy.
  • In Asheville, the Buncombe County school board voted to loosen its policy earlier this year, allowing high school students to miss 14 days of a year-long class, rather than the 10-absence limit it imposed before, said spokeswoman Stacia Harris. “We know that we must give grace and work with families as much as possible,” Harris said in an email.

5-day limit in handbook not being enforced

The CMS 2022-2023 parent-student handbook actually differentiates between students in year-long and semester-long classes. The handbook says students in a semester-long class will receive a grade of “F” for the course once they exceed  five absences.

Hayes told the Ledger that CMS is not enforcing that five-absence limit and is focusing instead on students who exceed 10 absences total.

He also noted that CMS counselors and teachers reach out to families long before they hit the 11th day.

“When we see students with consecutive days out, teachers are speaking to counselors, and counselors making phone calls home: Is this a transportation issue? Is there something else keeping a student from getting to school? We want to solve for that.”  

No state guidelines mandating failure

The state Department of Public Instruction offers no specific guidelines requiring districts to fail students who miss a lot of school, said Rob Taylor, deputy state superintendent for district and school support services. 

Years ago, the state required a certain amount of seat time before a student could earn course credit. That policy was eventually eliminated in favor of a focus on content mastery, but it may be why some districts still tie excess absences to failure, Taylor said in an email. 

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