On May 30, 2021, SB1577 passed both houses and, if signed by the Governor, will amend the School Code to reflect that the mental or behavioral health of a student is a “valid cause” for absence from school. Currently, valid exemptions recognized for school-age children to be absent include but are not limited to illness, religious holidays, death in the immediate family, and family emergencies. Additionally, in January 2019, “other circumstances which cause reasonable concern to the parent for the mental, emotional, or physical health or safety of the student” was added. The most recent amendment would allow parents to keep their student home from school for “the mental or behavioral health of the child for up to 5 days for which the child need not provide a medical note.” The bill also provides that the mental or behavioral health absence will be considered an excused absence and the student will be given the opportunity to make up their missed schoolwork.
A student’s significant number of absences has long been a red flag for school personnel to start thinking about whether referral for a special education evaluation is warranted. Typically, some investigating is needed to determine whether the absences may be related to a disability or some other barrier to attendance. In this case, parents would be explicitly telling the school that the student’s mental health or behavioral health is interfering with school attendance, making the flag that much bolder. Indeed, the bill also provides that after the second mental health day used, the student may be referred to appropriate school support personnel. This referral is discretionary, but a documented referral to the school counselor, social worker, psychologist, or nurse, as well as a documented call home for more information are well-advised.
While sometimes families may use these excused absences for informal breaks or even vacations that do not signal a potential disability, other times families may use these days for more serious mental health concerns or behavioral crises. Gathering additional information and offering assistance can help school personnel understand the underlying causes of the absences and take appropriate action to support the student’s attendance, including, if necessary, an evaluation for special education services. The social-emotional well-being of all students will be a critical focus next year as we return to full in-person learning after more than a year of extraordinary challenges. Carefully monitoring student attendance should be one component of a school’s plan to support students during this transition.