During my senior year of high school, I missed a lot of school. Truth be told, I was just done. Things weren’t great for me at home. I had only a few easy classes left, and I was counting down the days until I could get away from it all and start college.
And you know what? No one batted an eye. I was 18 years old with an acceptance letter to an out-of-state college, and I was still doing the work and pulling good grades; that was all teachers cared about.
But a lot has changed.
I’m in a private group for mothers raising children with a chronic health condition. In that group, I see stories of harassment from schools over absences every single day.
One woman recently vented about a fight she is currently having with her son’s school. He is a straight-A student with a 504 plan excusing his absences due to his chronic illness. Every time he misses school, he makes the work up. But the principal has been threatening the family with summer school if this boy can’t improve upon his attendance. Not only that, but the school nurse called to ask for a direct line to the child’s doctor so the school could figure out how to keep him in class all day without having to call his parents. The family was being harassed with multiple phone calls, threats, and requests for meetings.
Another mom hopped in on that conversation to say she had faced similar issues with her child’s school — to the point that the school had threatened to get Child Protective Services involved, claiming that a 504 plan couldn’t trump truancy laws.
Let me remind you: These are kids with chronic health conditions we’re talking about, not kids who simply don’t want to be at school.
A few days ago, another mother shared a story that really took the cake. Her child’s principal recently sent home a note to families encouraging them to send their sick kids to school. “We welcome kids who are sneezing, coughing or experiencing sore throats!” the letter said.
Now, I’m all about leaving those decisions up to parents. I think most of us know when our kids are sick enough to be kept home or not, and if we kept our kids home for every sniffle, they’d never go to school at all. But this letter was poorly timed, as it came right in the middle of a massive flu outbreak at the school. When pressed about why he would send such a letter, the principal apparently explained that absences were up because of illness, and the school’s funding was taking a hit.
That was when I started doing some research.
It turns out that every state ties school funding to enrollment or attendance in some way. But while some simply count the enrollment numbers on the first day of school to determine how many students the school should be funded for, there are seven states — California, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, and Texas — that do something far more controversial. These states use what is called “Average Daily Attendance (ADA)” to determine how much funding a school should get.
ADA basically means that every day a student is absent, the school loses money. A few years ago, The Washington Post ran a piece on this practice and the many detrimental outcomes of it. They opened the article by explaining that in California, schools get $41 a day for each student in attendance.
Putting an actual number on each child’s head, each day, has resulted in schools going to extremes to keep attendance up.
Robin Haws has two kids in school in Texas and is all too familiar with the harassing notes and calls.
She explains to Babble:
“We get routine emails from our administrators telling us to send our sick kids to school and let the school nurse decide if they need to go home — like parents aren’t capable of making that decision. But when we do keep them home, unless there’s a doctor’s note, the absence is counted as unexcused. When my grandmother died and the kids missed a day for her funeral, it was unexcused. Then there’s been a few times where the kids have, for different reasons, missed three to four days in a six-week period. We’ve gotten letters threatening to take us to truancy court.”
Andrea Charlton of Missouri is also well-versed in the struggle, telling Babble:
“My daughter got lice at school. So of course I kept her home so we could deal with that. But then the school sent home a letter saying we should send the kids, even if they have nits! The whole thing makes me furious — that’s how she got lice in the first place. She’s also had the stomach flu, a virus, and pneumonia so far this school year. The school has threatened to call DFS on us. But my husband and I are both in the medical field — we are the ones who get to decide if our child is too sick to go to school.”
She admits that she’s actually considered homeschooling her kids because of this issue.
As a mom raising an immunocompromised child, I would be furious if my daughter’s school was actively encouraging parents to send sick kids to school. But let’s be honest, no school would be doing that if not for the fact that they are literally getting paid for each child they can keep in school each day — and nothing about that is anyone’s best interest.
I know public schools are just doing the best they can, and having funding tied to attendance makes things so much more complicated. But maybe that’s why we need to look at how we are funding public schools in the first place. Because if the answer comes from pressuring parents to send sick kids to school in order to keep money coming into the school, then we’re doing something very, very wrong.
Schools shouldn’t be policing attendance at all. It’s not the best use of their resources, and it doesn’t leave any wiggle room for circumstances outside a family’s control. While it’s true there may be instances requiring outside intervention, such as in the cases of kids who just never show up, or parents who don’t seem interested in bringing their kids to school. But I would argue that most teachers can easily tell the difference between true truancy concerns and families who value education and keeping their kids healthy.
Things come up. Illnesses. Family emergencies. Even the occasional middle-of-the-school-year vacation. These are not things schools should be policing. And when schools do get involved, it should be about looking out for the best interest of the child — not bringing in an extra $41 that day.