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Sick at school? CMS attendance policy under scrutiny

Kids at a school desk
Sarah Delia

One morning last month, Ben Jacobs, a senior at Myers Park High School, woke up feeling nauseated with a terrible headache. He ran to the bathroom and vomited. Then he pulled himself together and hustled to school before the end of first period.

Jacobs, who had already missed some school because of a medical issue, said he didn’t want to risk another absence in light of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ attendance policy – one of the strictest in the state, according to an informal analysis by The Charlotte Ledger/ NC Health News.

The CMS policy says a high school student who misses more than 10 days of any class — whether the absence is excused or unexcused — will fail the course. To avoid a failing grade, a student must get a special medical waiver or make up the time through a process called “attendance recovery.”

Although the rule has been in place since 1970, CMS is aggressively enforcing it this year as it tries to get students back on track after the pandemic, when absences soared and school performance tanked.

Research shows excess absences — missing 10 percent or more of school days — is strongly linked to lower academic achievement.

The policy is sparking controversy among parents and students who say it encourages students to go to school sick at a time when respiratory illnesses are surging. In addition to the ongoing threat of Covid — which triggers a five-day quarantine underCMS rules — respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and flu are also on the rise.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Erin Garvey, whose daughter is a sophomore at Hough High. “Ten days is not a lot when we have all sorts of illnesses spreading like wildfire. I know absenteeism has gotten out of hand with some kids. But there’s a big difference between kids who are just skipping and a straight-A student whose family says, ‘My kid was sick.’”

The goal is to keep kids in school: Matthew Hayes, CMS deputy superintendent for academic services, said emphatically that CMS does not want sick kids to come to school. At the same time, the district wants to send the message that families need to make school a priority and try to schedule vacations and appointments outside of school time.

Chronic absenteeism leads to lower grades and test scores, less engagement in school and higher dropout rates, research shows.

“If students are not in the classroom, they are missing instruction,” Hayes said. “Even if it's an excused absence, it still is going to create a gap in the continuation of a student’s learning.”

The CMS policy allows students who are absent for an extended amount of time for medical reasons to apply for a medical waiver with documentation. In addition, missing class for a school-sponsored activity such as a field trip or an athletic competition doesn’t count toward a student’s total absences.

Hayes noted that absences skyrocketed during the pandemic when CMS suspended its attendance rule. About 29% of CMS students were “chronically absent” in the 2021-2022 school year — that’s twice as many as before the pandemic. CMS considers students chronically absent if they miss at least 10% of days in a school year — or about 18 days.

Since CMS reinstated the policy this school year, absences have dropped. In a Nov. 11 Charlotte Observer article, outgoing interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh listed better student attendance as one of his accomplishments, noting that chronic absenteeism is down to about 15% today.

Hayes said the attendance policy is not intended to penalize students: “It’s about making sure they have the resources and the knowledge they need in order to be successful, not just for the course they are currently in but also for future courses.”

One CMS high school teacher said he’s glad the district is cracking down. “I had students last year with 30-plus absences. I cannot do my job like that,” he said.

The teacher said he did not want to be named because he feared retribution from school administrators — or from angry parents. “I’ve already been asked by parents to ignore the policy, falsify the recovery of time, or allow students to make up the remediation work on their own time,” he said.

‘A really wrong-headed idea’: Although CMS may want sick kids to stay home, students and families said that’s not always what happens.

Jacobs said he recently sat next to a student in class who admitted to having a fever, but who said she was there because of the attendance policy. And Garvey said her daughter returned to school early when she had a cold earlier this year.

“She felt like garbage but went back, and I know she was not the only one. She has several friends who have gone back prematurely because they felt the pressure,” Garvey said.

Meanwhile, some psychologists have another concern: they say the policy is creating unnecessary anxiety among teens with mental health issues, and it’s making kids opt out of getting therapy they need, because they can’t get appointments outside of school hours.

“Our kids are in crisis,” said Kristin Daley, a psychologist at Base Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Charlotte. “With all of the isolation during the pandemic, referrals are through the roof. Ideally, of course, we would love for all of these kids to be seen outside of school hours, but it’s just not feasible.”

Daley said the CMS attendance policy came up at a recent staff meeting in her office, and it has also been a frequent complaint on a Facebook page of Charlotte area counselors, therapists and psychologists. There was even discussion about publishing an open letter urging the district to reconsider the policy, Daley said.

“It just feels like a really wrong-headed idea,” Daley said. “It’s causing families to prioritize compliance to school over their physical health and mental health. Increasing anxiety is not going to improve test scores.”

Other districts more lenient: The N.C. Department of Public Instruction offers no specific guidelines requiring districts to fail students who miss a lot of school, said Rob Taylor, deputy state superintendent for district and school support services.

However, if a student accumulates more than 10 unexcused absences, parents can be charged with a misdemeanor under the state’s truancy law.

The Ledger/NC Health News reviewed the attendance policies of other large N.C. school districts as well as the ones immediately surrounding Charlotte and found that the CMS policy is among the toughest.

  • In Wake County, high school students are “referred to the school-based attendance team” if they exceed 20 excused or unexcused absences – double the number that CMS allows. The team will then consider “appropriate interventions to improve the student’s attendance,”according to the district’s policy manual.
  • Cabarrus County schools calls for a review (not an automatic failing grade) if a student exceeds eight absences in a semester. The review should consider the circumstances of the absences, other measures of academic achievement and the extent to which the student completed missed work, according to the district’s policy.
  • In Asheville, the Buncombe County school board voted to loosen its policy earlier this year, allowing high school students to miss 14 days of a year-long class, rather than the 10-absence limit it imposed before, said spokeswoman Stacia Harris. “We know that we must give grace and work with families as much as possible,” Harris said in an email.

5-day limit in CMS handbook not being enforced: The CMS2022-2023 parent-student handbook actually differentiates between students in year-long and semester-long classes. The handbook says students in a semester-long class will receive a grade of “F” for the course once they exceed five absences.

Hayes told the Ledger that CMS is not enforcing that five-absence limit and is focusing instead on students who exceed 10 absences total. He also noted that CMS counselors and teachers reach out to families long before they hit the 11th day.

“When we see students with consecutive days out, teachers are speaking to counselors, and counselors making phone calls home: Is this a transportation issue? Is there something else keeping a student from getting to school? We want to solve for that.”

Poor students struggle most: The latest research on attendance indicates that positive interventions — such as checking on families and offering support — are generally more effective at keeping kids in school than punitive measures, said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that works to reduce chronic absences.

Chang expressed concern that the CMS attendance policy could have a disproportionate impact on low-income students.

Although there will always be teens who willfully cut class, absences among low-income students in particular are often related to barriers beyond their control, Chang said. They may have transportation issues, unstable housing or be forced to stay home to care for a sick younger sibling or relative.

It may also be more difficult for low-income students to attend before- or after-school sessions for attendance recovery, Chang noted, since they may not have access to transportation.

“Trying to motivate them by saying, ‘You have to show up, otherwise you’ll fail’ – when they’re already having challenges getting to school – I would suspect that kind of policy might have a lot of negative impacts on kids and actually increase dropouts,” she said.

How to recover missed days: The CMS parent-teacher handbook says students “must recover excess absences hour-for-hour.” To meet that requirement, many schools have set up before- and after-school recovery sessions.

A CMS high school teacher who did not want to be named said she thinks a lot of the recent controversy around the rule is due to the fact that CMS has removed teacher discretion around attendance, at least at her school.

“The way it worked before, if a student kept in touch with me, kept up with the work and turned it in, I could still give them an ‘A’ in the class. I could say, ‘this student doesn’t need to do credit recovery time,’” the teacher said. “My understanding now is that we aren’t able to waive anything. If you hit that 10, you are going to fail the course unless you sit in a classroom after school.”

Hayes said the district allows schools to offer different types of attendance recovery, including assigning students a project or assignment they can do at home. He encouraged students and families who can’t attend after-school sessions to reach out to their principal or learning community superintendent.

Michelle Crouch covers health care. This article is part of a partnership between The Ledger and North Carolina Health News to produce original health care reporting focused on the Charlotte area. It is republished here with permission.