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The Unexplained Absence PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jenni Person   
March 2020

How to read between the sick-note lines

Abigstock-Children-In-Classroom-5332737t the orientation for my son’s middle school three years ago, the assistant principal very sternly and intentionally stated, “The only absence that will be excused is a sick excuse. The only absence that I will excuse will be a sick excuse.” She repeated it adamantly without anyone even asking about that.

Clearly, this came from years in the trenches of excused-absence requests. “There is a form,” she continued, “you come into the office and fill out that form. And don’t tell me you had to travel, don’t tell me you had to go to a bar mitzvah, don’t tell me you were moving, I don’t want to hear it. The only absence that will be excused will be a sick excuse.”

This was so different from what I had experienced at my daughter’s middle school. There I simply e-mailed the office secretary with the principal or assistant principal in copy that she was, for example, headed to a march in D.C., certainly that was educational. There was also the second day of Rosh Hashanah, which is never a day off in any public school system. This absence was totally excused with an e-mail about heritage and custom and exploring and honoring ancient text. Same for the couple of days she missed before her Bat Mitzvah, preparing or spending time with out-of-town friends and family.

With that as my middle school worldview, I marched into another middle school for my next kid. And there I faced this: “The only absence that will be excused will be a sick excuse.”

This would all be fine if there weren’t a penalty for absences beyond the natural one of falling behind. Truly, I don’t care how many absences my kids have, knowing full well that they are still getting the education I believe in, one measured by values in which our family is invested. But unfortunately, after three absences, you get a threatening call about your child failing as a result. So even if your kid is exponentially expanding an understanding of humanity and the world -- maybe even witnessing history or honing life skills like navigating a world outside of the comfort zone -- it is considered failure unless there is a lack of medical wellness involved.

Even if your kid talked to the teachers, did work in advance for extra credit or made up what was missed, that is not as important as a physical body present in a building -- whether or not that presence is relevant to that student’s learning.

Meanwhile, at an awards ceremony, I learned they actually give an award for “perfect attendance.” Why and how is that an accomplishment? That means not even claiming those famous excused sick days. It seems both sheltered and unhygienic to think it’s okay for a kid to go through life with blinders to everything outside of those walls and probably running a fever or wiping a runny nose while there.

Seriously, is that a statement that we should send our germy, sick kids into the petri dish of kid germs that is school to infect other kids? And what does that say to kids who miss school for other reasons -- like their parents can’t get them there one day because of a host of possible economic challenges ranging from public transportation to their own health to relying on free or affordable child care to changes in their own work schedules to housing or food insecurity.

I’m lucky that I have the privilege required to break or reinvent rules. This sick-note policy and this “perfect attendance” award in all its compulsive glory can really alienate and exclude for lots of different reasons.

“The only absence that will be excused will be a sick excuse.” She recited it half as if she was drilling it into our heads as simple, straightforward law of the land, and somehow half as if we should be reading between the lines. So I read between the lines. Or I invented meaning between the lines, and at that moment I figured out that whenever my kid has to miss school, I needed to write a sick note.

And so now I find myself standing in the office at my son’s school one morning after a holiday weekend that included time off for a family reunion writing, “Please excuse my son’s absence on Friday, he was recovering from an injury.” Well, he was, my son always has some sort of basketball injury.

And now that my daughter is at a different school and the days of easy excuse e-mails are behind us, her note said: “Please excuse my daughter’s absence on Friday, she missed school for health reasons.” Because there’s all kinds of health, including academic health, which sometimes means the holistic, real-life experiential learning of life.

 

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