The Trouble with Truancy - Part 1

Two years ago, I wrote our school district about the truancy policy.  At that time, I was told that I had presented a good case, and they were going to change their policy.  I don't know if it actually did change and then changed back, but looking at the policy on my school district's webpage, the policy is the same as the one I complained about.  In this post, I'll share that letter.  In my next post, I'll talk about why it matters, and what the Michigan government has just done that makes this even worse.

Dear JPS School Board,

I’m writing to you because I’ve been disturbed about the JPS elementary school attendance policy for some time.  Specifically, I find it disturbing that the only way an absence can be “excused” is with a doctor’s note.  My chief issue with this policy is that I think it is, in a word, classist.  In addition, I think that it represents a misuse of the medical system and it fails to respect a parent’s reasonable judgment.

The policy as it now stands requires a doctor’s note to excuse an absence.  I am fortunate to have insurance and have a family doctor I can turn to.  Even so, it may require a $20 co-pay for a visit before a doctor will be willing to write a letter, which may mean a $20 fee for a note to excuse an absence for what I know is a cold with a mild fever.  Since I’m following our school’s procedures of keeping a child home when sick, I’ll need to do this if I think she might be sick for even five days total per year.  This is doable for me, if I’m worried about the situation.  However, for a family in a harder economic situation, that $20 co-pay can be onerous.  But that’s assuming a family has a regular doctor and has insurance beyond catastrophic coverage only.  I’m certain that not all families in our school district do, with more than half of the children in our county living in poverty (  As you well know, most of our elementary schools qualified for the federal program supplying free school lunches for our children based on the poverty rates of our area. 

What we are creating, therefore, is a system wherein wealthier students when they get sick are less likely to be considered truant and poorer children are more likely to be considered truant, based not on their real truancy rates, but based on their access to affordable medical care.  The schools need to be helping address income inequality between our students, not creating further income inequality.

Beyond issues of class, however, this system represents a misuse of the medical system and a lack of respect for the judgment of parents.  To return to my own child’s situation, we’re told we’re supposed to keep children home if they have any fever.  However, when I keep my child home with a sniffle and a temperature that’s up one or two degrees, as I have done today, I therefore also need to call my child’s doctor and get a note from her.  In the past, the doctor has told us with cold-like symptoms and a very mild fever there’s no need for the child to see a doctor unless the condition persists beyond a couple of days.  I therefore know that there’s no need, other than the JPS policy, to seek a medical professional’s advice.  Today we called the doctor, anyway, to try to meet the policy demands.  However, we haven’t received a call back yet.  Sometimes they’ve been willing to provide a note for school without seeing her and, really, what does that prove, except that we have a good relationship with our doctor?  If they won’t write a note for today without seeing her, I’ll need for her to see the doctor, in order to prove she was sick.  My daughter may be well tomorrow, but I would need to pull her out of school tomorrow in order to get the note to excuse the first day’s absence.  (The note would probably then say that my child’s absence wasn’t excused, because she was fine by the second day.)  So now my child would have been out for one and a half days when one day would have sufficed, wasting the doctor’s time, my time, and my child’s time, just because of a poor policy.  Frankly, I’m unwilling to pull my child out of school for an unnecessary doctor’s appointment, because school is more important to me than your attendance policy.  So if this happens for eight days per year, my child will probably be referred to a truant officer for early truancy intervention.  My hope is that if this happens, “early truancy intervention” is something which focuses on telling other parents to keep their children home when they’re sick so that my child can catch fewer colds and miss fewer days, or helps set up free clinics for parents without insurance!  Of course, you can see that we’re caught it a Catch-22.

To not accept my word that my child has a mild fever and a sniffle is to disrespect my judgment as a parent, one who does care about my child’s medical status and knows that a doctor visit is not necessary.  To have to pursue it with a reluctant physician, as well, is a misuse of the medical establishment, and disrespectful to our physician, as well. 

If you all think back to the days when you were a child, and were home sick with a mild cold, you’ll remember that your parent probably called the school and told them you were sick, and that was the end of the matter.  There should be a way to continue to do this.  Be creative.  While the occasional problem of a parent keeping a child out of school more for other reasons may exist, there are ways to address this without creating a burdensome system with a difficult financial cost to the parents to it. 

Thank you for considering my argument.  I hope I have managed to convey my issue respectfully, although this policy frustrates me every time my child has been home sick.  I understand not excusing a family vacation, or even a trip to the dentist, but if you want parents to keep sick children home, as I know you do, I hope you will consider making it easier for us to do so. 

Cynthia L. Landrum


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