Board of Education reintroduces proposal of mental health and civic engagement absences
May 24, 2021
The Montgomery County Board of Education recently reintroduced discussions regarding excused absences for mental health and student civic engagement, after two years of consideration prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The board aims to reach a consensus about the proposed policy by this fall.
If passed, the proposed policy would designate absences due to mental health and student activism as excused. The Board is currently entertaining the possibility of 0-3 excused absences, but has been unable to reach a consensus in the past two years.
On the county level, Student School Member of the Board Nick Asante requested the school board discuss enacting a policy that designates excused absences for mental health purposes, according to Bethesda Magazine. He expressed that if not specifically designated, policies should make clear the importance of mental health care as much as physical health.
“Our school system constantly talks about how much we care about social emotional well-being. We have all these different initiatives to boost student mental health, like the BeWell365 Program and Signs of Suicide Prevention Program,” Asante said. “It’s important that we recognize that sometimes students just like anyone else need a day off and as a preventative measure and a way to take care of their mental health.”
According to UNICEF, the pandemic has exacerbated the preexisting mental health issues for students across the nation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported a substantial rise in mental health-related visits in comparison to emergency room visits for individuals aged 5-17 in 2020, highlighting supporting student mental health is increasingly critical to success.
“While there are support systems in place like your counselor and the school psychologist, many may not feel close enough to them to share details about their mental health,” Lauren Block, junior and Vice President of the RM Minds Matter Club said. “I believe that mental health is respected at this school and that many administrators do care about the issue, but from a student’s viewpoint, not enough is being done to support struggling students.”
In a recent committee meeting, some board members expressed that compelling students to voice their personal mental health concerns for an excused absence could raise issues.
“My children have taken mental health days where, to me, that is equally as necessary as a cold or a fever,” board member Rebecca Smondrowski said in the Bethesda Magazine article. “So, I have always categorized it as, if you are not well, you are not well and that’s excused, so I don’t know that I think it should be labeled in some way. I would fear labeling it would change the dynamics.”
However, Asante stated that there are other paths that students who do not wish to disclose their mental health issues may take to receive an excused absence, adding that not all students are uncomfortable disclosing their mental health issues. He thinks that the opportunity for an excused absence should still be provided to all students.
“To claim a mental health absence means admitting not only to yourself that you struggle but possibly your friends, family, and school professionals,” Block said. “The stigma surrounding mental health is still quite negative and it’s hard to go out and admit that you’re struggling to the point where you shouldn’t be in school.”
MCPS school members have raised concerns, such as the effect of specially designated excused absences on the policy of chronic absenteeism, which serves as a metric for a school district’s success. However, proponents of the bill believe the benefits can be impactful.
“I believe one of the benefits of properly labeling a mental health absence is allowing students to take control of and giving them more flexibility to take care of themselves,” Block said. “No longer will students have to say they’re sick or work around their school schedule just to ensure they take care of their mental health.”
In fall 2018, the Board initiated conversations on potential excused absences for community-oriented activism after a succession of high school student school walkouts. The walkouts, considered unexcused, were in response to a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, 2018.
According to an article from NPR News, Fairfax County of Virginia allotted one day of students per academic year for civic engagement purposes in response to the shooting, starting Jan. 2020. “I think all school systems everywhere are going to need to find a way to deal with the rise in student activism and kind of funnel that energy in a productive way,” Fairfax School Board member Ryan McElveen said in the article.
“We live right in the nation’s capital right by the nation’s capital, and as you’ve seen in the past Montgomery County students are very active in student activism,” Asante said. “I think it’s vitally important to provide students with the opportunity to go out into the real world and use their First Amendment rights … [and be] able to actually apply what they’ve learned in the classroom into the real world … and not penalize them for that.”