There seems to be a growing problem for SouthCoast families of high school students.

While schools are operating at nearly complete normalcy with respect to restrictions surrounding COVID, the issue of absences is becoming a problem.

Students who test positive for COVID are required to stay home from school, and for good reason. A positive test means missing up to five days of school. Pair that with a case of the flu, a cold, or any other illness or injury that happens in the course of a child's life and a student can quickly fall into the danger zone for school absences.

That's when some schools start sending warning letters to parents.

Parents reasonably feel that mixed messages are being sent from schools and the state's department of education:

"Stay home!"

"Don't ever come to school sick!"

Then again, if you're sick too many days, you'll be whacked with a "no-credit."

The goal of the attendance warning letters seems clear. They are meant to scare students and parents into not allowing students to miss more school. The tone of the letters is likely to encourage parents to nudge their kiddos out the door and off to school, even when they are sick.

What happens when they get there? They are spreading germs and continuing the cycle. Where is the wisdom in this?

According to a letter from Old Rochester Regional High School, warnings are issued at the eighth absence in a full-year course and the fourth absence in a half-year course. If a student misses 18 classes of a full-year course or nine from a half-year, a "no credit" letter will be issued for that class.

"DESE doesn't count it as excused or unexcused absences, even though we do in our system," Dartmouth Public Schools' Director of Elementary Teaching and Learning Katie Pavao said, referring to the state Department of Secondary Education. "If kids have a letter or a doctor's note, we excuse those absences here in Dartmouth, but there's not really a lot of wiggle room as far as the state is concerned."

Fairhaven Superintendent of Schools Tara Kohler has sympathy for the parents.

"We're still following the same procedure as we did before to try to keep our attendance at the required state level, however, we use common sense and take into account excused absences."

Kohler said Fairhaven Public Schools are required to send warning letters when a certain threshold of absences is hit.

"My own kids are subject to the same letter," Kohler said. "However, I can understand the feeling that the letter would give to a parent."

A DESE spokesperson shared that districts are allowed to excuse absences at their discretion through local policy. Whether or not to withhold credit from a student because of missed absences is a local decision, not a state one, the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson also shared that at the state level, absences, whether excused or not, represent a loss of instruction, which is why chronic absenteeism is an important issue. Chronic absenteeism is defined by the state as the percentage of students missing 10 to 20 percent or more of their days. Therefore, a student enrolled in the traditional 180-day schedule would be labeled chronic after 18 days.

Click here for more information about Massachusetts' guidelines on chronic absenteeism.

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