The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on families and students as schools have moved into more virtual settings. Some parents have opted to homeschool their children without necessarily going through the formal steps to officially withdraw their child. Others struggle with attendance for a variety of other factors, including mental illness.
Over the years, we have met with many families where students experiencing mental health crises were also subjected to punitive truancy proceedings for failure to attend their classes, adding to their troubles and complicating their recovery.
However, what the law says and how schools have addressed the situation has been disjointed. Some schools historically have required parents to have a doctor’s note before excusing the child. But at the same time many schools have had a different more lenient policy. The result is parents in some districts being deemed too ignorant to excuse their own child for an illness, despite state law not requiring this step.
Though many schools have already adopted lenient truancy practices during the pandemic, parents and schools alike need the flexibility to do what is best for students, regardless of once-in-a-century circumstances.
This year the Utah Legislature passed three different proposals that address these issues.
- Representative Mike Winder sponsored House Bill 81 to clarify that a valid excuse includes issues pertaining to the “mental or behavioral health” of the child.
- Representative Adam Robertson sponsored House Bill 116 to clarify in state law that a doctor’s note is not required for a parent to excuse their child from school due to an illness.
- Senator Dan McCay sponsored Senate Bill 219 which suspends truancy laws for one school year while society emerges from the pandemic and back into full-time in-classroom learning. Truancy laws would be unenforceable until after the 2021-2022 school year is completed.
These bills not only help protect parental rights (as dictated in Utah’s Constitution), but they also provide important support to Utah’s children. Routines and normalcy have been disrupted and it would be wise to give families and students as much flexibility as possible. Utah’s Legislature has now made it clear that student health comes first before seat time.