Roll Call Reboot: When to Decide to Keep Your Child Home From School

Are they sick or do they just want a day off? And does the reason even matter?

When Colleen Napleton was a child, her parents wouldn’t allow her to miss school unless she vomited and could prove it. Napleton has much different rules in her family now that she’s a mom. 

She lets her 8-year-old son miss school when he needs a break, when he’s overwhelmed, when it’s been a rough week emotionally and even when she feels like he needs some special one-on-one time with her. 

“I think the change is seeing them as a whole person,” Napleton says of the difference between her parenting style and her parents’. “Having respect for them versus outdated ways of them having no autonomy. We consider their thoughts, feelings and struggles instead of just controlling or bossing.” 

But while that sounds lovely and nurturing, what about school policies and the concern of falling behind academically? And how do parents who work outside the home determine when it’s significant enough to take the day off with their children — or when to push them to make it through another day at school? 

Attendance policies 

First, the facts. Each state determines its own attendance and truancy policies — and those policies vary broadly in the Midwest. 

In Michigan, students are truant if they miss 10 days total, and they’re chronically absent if they miss 10 percent of the total school days. 

In January, State Senator Sarah Anthony introduced a bill allowing for mental health days in Michigan, but it hasn’t been signed into law. It was assigned to the Committee on Education in April. Michigan — which has one of the highest chronic absenteeism rates in the country — is one of a handful of states that also still penalizes parents for chronic absenteeism. Designed to reduce absenteeism, parents and students in Michigan can face court charges for being chronically absent. 

In the 2022-2023 school year, 30.8 percent of Michigan students were chronically absent, down from 38.5 percent the previous year. But pre-pandemic, that percentage stood at about 20 percent.

Nationwide, in 2021-22, 66 percent of enrolled students attended a school in the U.S. with high or extreme levels of chronic absence, according to the latest U.S. Department of Education data. 

It’s only slightly better in 2022-23, early data analysis found by nonprofit initiative Attendance Works, which is on a quest to stop absenteeism that many believe only exacerbates the achievement gap.

Chronic absenteeism typically happens for one of three reasons: A chronic health issue; a lack of transportation/parental involvement to get to school; and school refusal, whether it is the result of bullying, fear of failure, housing and clothing insecurity or lack of motivation.

None of these is an easy issue to tackle simply by creating school policies or by dictating a number of days that students can and can’t miss. 

They’re bigger problems.

And for parents, the struggle over school attendance hits close to home.

To go or not to go 

For students who wake in the morning and really just don’t feel like going to school that day, the final call is up to the parents, and this is where everything becomes a balancing act, explains Kimberly King, the author of “Body Safety for Young Children”, a certified K-6 teacher and a mom of three. 

Perfect attendance is a lofty goal, but it shouldn’t overshadow the well-being of a child, King explains. King says that regular school attendance is crucial, though deciding when to let your child stay home requires a balanced approach which should examine their physical and their mental health. 

Stress, anxiety or emotional struggles may necessitate a break from the school routine, she says. 

Fair enough, but mental health is so much more difficult to calculate than physical health, which can be monitored via a thermometer. And what about the children who may want to stay home daily? The answer is not so clear.

Terra Schultz, mom of three in the education tech sphere, says she determines the severity of her children’s requests by their desire to use electronics. They may have a mental health day if they want it, but they aren’t allowed to use electronics on their day off unless they’re using those screens for schoolwork, she says. 

“That sort of takes the fun out of it,” Schultz says.

Other parents allow a mental health day on special occasions when they sense it’s really necessary.

“My opinion is that perfect attendance should be a thing of the past,” says metro Detroit mom Victoria Martinez. “With more mental health support and self-care talk, we should support students to have a little more autonomy and in making good decisions. They should be able, with good guidance from families, to make the decision when they aren’t feeling their best to take some time. We don’t behave/perform our best when we don’t feel well.”

From the educators’ perspective 

While many public schools still push for perfect attendance, as they lose funding when students are chronically absent — research shows that this is an outdated way of thinking. 

The largest recent study published on this topic looked at 15,000 students from the 6th to 12th grade in 14 schools across the West Coast. Researchers found that the students who received attendance awards at those schools had worse attendance after getting the awards compared with those who weren’t awarded anything for their attendance. Rather than feeling good about receiving a perfect attendance award, the students were likely to feel like they attended school more often than their peers — so they felt entitled to some days off of the grind. 

An alternative approach: Those who miss school could be comforted by their teachers who are more understanding about catching them up with their work. That way, students who don’t feel like they can return because they missed too much will be more likely to jump back in — and those who are hesitant to take a mental health day — will be more encouraged to take a needed break. 

“I do not believe that schools should punish parents for non-attendance,” says Aura De Los Santos, a clinical and educational psychologist. “Rather, there should be effective communication between parents and the school to support each other in situations where children are unable to go to school: children’s mental health is critical.” 

Local Moms Weigh in

“If you can achieve perfect attendance that is wonderful and hats off to both the parent and child. There should be some flexibility because life does happen and not everyone has the same resources or support. Schools say they want you to keep a sick kid home so they shouldn’t be marked negatively for it because it helps the collective stay safe. I’m lucky to have a flexible job. If I didn’t, it would be much harder.”

– Jazmine Hardison

“My husband leaves it up to me, but we do discuss attendance before I make a decision. If I say my kids just need a day off, he doesn’t question me. My older two are more inclined to not want to ever miss school because of the workload. However, our district is designed to not send home homework if they can help it and one of my oldest has advanced courses. So, I’m not really a stickler for perfect attendance.”

– Valerie Vazquez

“My husband cares more about attendance than I do. If my kids are sick, they can stay home. If they need a mental health day, they can stay home. I don’t like the way school is structured. I feel like it’s “kid jail” and it’s hard for them to sit there for hours and listen to people talk at them.”

– Dominique Pitts

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