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When Is It OK to Take Your Kids Out of School?

 Seattle Seahawks parade

The teacher friend with whom our family watched the Super Bowl said ruefully after the cheering had subsided, "Wow. So much for looking forward to a regular week of school."

Here in Seahawks country, it's been hard to concentrate.

Somewhere close to 700,000 people reportedly attended the parade to celebrate the champions, which left area school officials scrambling to decide whether to close schools, excuse the absences or neither of the above. 

Seattle Public Schools reported that 13,523 of the city's 51,000 students were marked absent on parade day, which fell on a Wednesday, a little more than a week before mid-winter break and three days after schools were closed for the day between semesters. Kids were off the week before that for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. 

Out of the nearly 3,000 teachers, 565 didn't make it to school either.

Some parents were annoyed that parade participation was an issue, given the number of early dismissal and school closure days.

Should area schools have saved the money they spent on substitute teachers, stopped worrying about absence policy and simply closed down for the day?

Unexcused versus excused absences

The hand-wringing over parade absences stems from the law.

States have compulsory attendance laws, which govern how many unexcused absences per month a child can have before someone intervenes.

Washington state's truancy law, known as the "Becca Bill," requires school districts and juvenile courts to take specific actions when kids miss school.

One unexcused absence in a month requires parents to be notified in writing or by phone. After two unexcused absences, parents are required to attend a conference with school officials.

It escalates from there.

For many kids, attending the parade and calling it an "unexcused absence" wouldn't make a difference. But the kid with one already recorded unexcused absence that month would have been significantly impacted by this day of celebration.

Different school districts have different rules about attendance and how parents should handle absences. It's important to understand the rules at your child's school and in your school district.

What about vacations?

 
In June 2011, the Seattle School Board voted on changes to the attendance rules, including changing the wording so that "educational trips" are considered excused absences, but "short family trips" (vacations) are not.
 
So what do you do if you've decided to take the kids to visit their grandparents in Mexico, to see the cathedrals of France or to spend an extra day skiing during mid-winter break? 
 
Just as there are excused and unexcused absences, schools distinguish between "planned" and "unplanned" absences. 
 
Unplanned absences are usually the result of illness or death of a family member and can be excused, provided the family notifies the school.
 
If you know your child is planning to miss school, you should contact school officials to find out whether the absence will be considered excused and what the expectations are for making up work. 
 
You might be in for a rude awakening.
 
When my oldest daughter was in sixth grade, we planned a two-week trip to Turkey to coincide with spring break. I contacted the school months in advance in writing to let them know she would be out the week following the break. In the weeks prior to the trip, I communicated with her teachers to make arrangements for her to make up missing assignments.
 
Her math teacher gave her a pile of work to do, which she did on the airplane, on the airport floor while waiting for flights and in our hotel room at night after sightseeing.
 
Her language arts teacher was more casual and did not provide any work for her to do. The class was studying ancient civilizations and we were going to see the ruined civilization of Ephesus (yes, our trip was educational), so I offered to have her give a presentation when we returned. 
 
She did, yet received no credit for it. Nor did she receive credit for any of the work she had missed in the week she was gone, the work we had asked to be given to us in advance so she could do it on the trip.
 
The teacher explained that he had no means of making the PowerPoint project fit within the online program the school used to list and grade assignments.
 
If an absence is unexcused, teachers may not be required to provide the opportunity to make up work. Even if the absence is excused, it's important to clarify in writing how make-up work will be handled. 
 
This is especially important in middle school and high school, because absences can have a significant impact on grades, especially when missing assignments are involved.
 
Overall, schools and school districts believe that absences have an impact on learning and aim to avoid them.
 

Then why are schools closed so often?

Believe it or not, the school calendar is a big part of contract negotiations between teachers unions and school districts. The two parties come together to agree on the number of vacation and professional development days (the reason for early release days) while adhering to the requirement that school be in session for 180 days.

Because of a new state regulation that adds 80 instructional hours to the middle and high school year, secondary schools will be struggling with how to fit in the extra time. One solution could be a reduction in professional development time for teachers.

What did teachers have to say about parade day?

Most of the teachers I unofficially surveyed about the impact of parade day made the best of things. "Teaching today was both easy and challenging," said a fifth-grade teacher. "Much of my class was gone, but since I didn't know who was going to be gone, my plans were up in the air until the kids came."

She and a middle-school language arts teacher said the day was a good opportunity for kids to catch up on mid-year assignment and for student-teacher conferences.

But for an area high school language arts teacher, the stakes were higher.

"With only so many days left until the Advanced Placement exam, I had to proceed as usual. I let my kids know I would not take it personally if they did not show up and I would not be punitive, but  we had to march on. They will have to make up the work after school at tutorial.

"There was just no way to lose a day right now."

 

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