2021 | Schools

School board revives review of mental health, civic engagement absences

Members hope to finalize changes by the fall

After a yearlong hiatus, the school board has revived its debate about whether high school students should receive excused absences for mental health reasons and to participate in protests.

The school board in September 2018 first began discussing the possibility of allowing students to miss school to participate in civic engagement activities.

The consideration was sparked by a series of school walkouts that students at county high schools participated in following a Feb. 14, 2018, shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.Students were told their absences would be considered unexcused.

For two years, school board members debated how many absences should be allowed, ranging from zero to three. They could not reach a consensus. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the school board suspended committee meetings, sidelining the discussion.

In September 2020, student school board member Nick Asante asked the board to consider whether students should receive excused absences for taking off from school to care for their mental health.

The board supported the review — aside from President Brenda Wolff, who argued at the time that parents can already excuse their children for a mental health day if they call in and report the student is sick.

Some board members voiced similar concerns during a committee meeting last week. Rebecca Smondrowski said she was concerned that requiring people to disclose they are struggling with their mental health to receive an excused absence could discourage some students from taking the time off.

“My children have taken mental health days where, to me, that is equally as necessary as a cold or a fever,” Smondrowski said. “So, I have always categorized it as, if you are not well, you are not well and that’s excused, so I don’t know that I think it should be labeled in some way. I would fear labeling it would change the dynamics.”

Asante said if the board does not explicitly designate mental health days as a reason for an excused absence, policy or regulation should state that student well-being is as important as physical health.

MCPS staff members raised several questions for the board to consider as it continues its review, including what impact additional allowed absences would have on chronic absenteeism rates.

Students are “chronically absent” when they miss 10% or more days of the days they are enrolled in an academic year. MCPS generally has 182 days in its academic year, but a student who is only enrolled for 10 days and absent once is considered chronically absent.

The indicator is used as part of state and federal accountability systems that measure school districts’ success.

In 2018, comments submitted to the school board over about two months largely focused on the policy’s impact on student attendance. Some constituents said students already have too many days off of school for holidays and can attend protests or other events outside classroom instruction time.

A policy allowing excused absences for civic engagement would put Montgomery County Public Schools among a “very small” group of school systems nationwide, according to the school district staff.

If the school board ultimately allows students to receive excused absences for either civic engagement or student activism, the language would be added to the district’s student attendance policy.

The ideas will be presented to the full school board in the coming months. The school board hopes to finalize any changes by the fall.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com