Absenteeism Policy Draws School Committee Concern

May 23, 2024
• The School Committee voted to adopt the Needham High School student handbook for the next school year, despite several members questioning the district’s updated absence policy.

As the school year comes to a close, the committee looked toward September, successfully approving handbooks across its elementary, middle and high schools at its Tuesday meeting. However, the proposed language around school absences drew skepticism from some board members, who felt it lacked rationale.

Under the pilot attendance program, a student with more than five absences per term — authorized and unauthorized — in a class will lose one credit per class. Previously, students began to lose credits after reaching 11 total absences during the year, Superintendent Dan Gutekanst wrote to the committee, but that has increased to 20 absences per year under the pilot. Students can earn lost back credits later, he said at the recent meeting.

That policy proved to be a concern for member Matthew Spengler at the committee’s May 14 meeting, who noted “it seems the policy change is creating incentives for kids to come to school sick.” Excused absences — meaning those with medical documentation, up to three college visiting days, a religious holiday or bereavement — do not count toward possible credit loss, according to the handbook.

By Gutekanst’s estimation, the new attendance policy is a “far more lenient” one, he wrote.

To be marked as attending for the day, a student must attend school from the beginning of the day until 11:30 a.m. or be present from 9:35 a.m. until the end of the school day, according to the handbook.

Member Alisa Skatrud voiced similar confusion over excused and unexcused absences, adding the committee doesn’t have the data regarding “which absences are because of illness versus which absences are a kid who just decided to go to Dunkin Donuts.” During last week’s meeting, Skatrud said she feels the policy doesn’t make students feel comfortable staying at home when they feel sick, as a note from a medical provider is required. She called the system “unrealistic” May 14.

After that meeting, Gutekanst consulted with school leaders to adjust that requirement for a doctor’s note, instead adding the following to the handbook: “If a student is absent for an extended period of time, the school may require a consultation with the child’s primary care physician.”

Districts vary drastically on their absence policies, Spengler said, and while a student attending a college trip with a parent note would be excused, a student staying home sick with just a parent note would be unauthorized. About 20% of Needham high schoolers are currently considered chronically absent, meaning they have missed 10% of this school year, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education updated in March. That’s more than 300 students out of the approximately 1,600 students, according to enrollment numbers from DESE.

Among the 7% of NHS students labeled low-income, over 36% were chronically absent this school year, according to DESE.

On Tuesday, Spengler said he feels “the policy is placing, I think, students and families in a really, very difficult and no-win situation.”

The new attendance policy – with a maximum of 20 allowed absences over the year — concerned member Andrea Longo Carter, who pointed to the state’s definition of chronic absenteeism, which is 18 days of the 180 total school days. She said there should be some interventions to understand why students are routinely missing class.

“A kid could cut class 20 days, one month, four weeks, and there would be no repercussions? I don’t agree with that,” she said.

Gutekanst acknowledged the concern, adding that chronic absenteeism appears to be trending down.

While chronic absenteeism at NHS is lower than last year — which was at nearly 32% — it remains more than double pre-pandemic levels. In the 2019-2020 school year, chronic absenteeism at NHS stood at 10.4%, though that spring was compromised. Over 2018-2019, that number was just under 9%, and the year prior was 9.1% at the high school, according to DESE.

In the four school years prior to the pandemic year — from the fall of 2015 to the spring of 2019 — chronic absenteeism in the entire district hovered around 5%, according to DESE.

After the discussion, Spengler remained opposed to approving the NHS handbook with the policy included and made a motion to exclude that section in the vote and instead take up the matter at the next meeting. His motion failed, though it was supported by Skatrud and Vice Chair Mike O’Brien.

The NHS handbook was adopted in its entirety, with the possibility of further discussion in the next six months. The elementary and middle school handbooks were passed without discussion earlier in the meeting.

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