Excused absences defined (and Disneyland didn’t make the cut)

The State Board of Education Wednesday adopted a statewide standard of when a student’s absences from school can be considered “excused,” and when districts will be required to step in and do something about habitual absenteeism.

Dozens of schools throughout the state have dismal attendance rates. Teachers at Bulkeley High School in Hartford can expect one of every four students to be absent every day. Statewide, 35 percent of students miss more than 10 school days each year and 9 percent more than 20 days. In the lower-income districts — like Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven — the average number of days a student misses is 14.

“We don’t know why they missed that much school,” said Charlene Russell-Tucker, the state department’s chief operating officer.

State law requires that a list of interventions take place when a child has four unexcused absences in a month or 10 in a school year. If students lack reliable transportation, the district must resolve the problem. If they aren’t showing up because they are being bullied or because of another personal issue, it is the district’s responsibility to address the issue. If the child is skipping and nothing else is working, then they can face discipline measures through the courts.

But the problem is this: These interventions are guaranteed and triggered only when students reach that threshold of unexcused absences.

On Wednesday state board members approved a uniform definition of what constitutes an excused absence to ensure that chronic absenteeism is identified early.

A student’s first nine absences will be excused with a note from the parent. Absences after that will require a doctor’s note or pre-approval from school officials if it’s an “extraordinary educational opportunity.” Religious holidays, a mandated court appearance, a death in the family or emergency will also have to be considered excused.

Asked if a trip to Disneyland would count as excused, Russell-Tucker said “That was not the intention… We want kids to be in school.”

Russell-Tucker said this new definition shortens the list of what can be considered an excused absence.

A survey conducted by the Education Department of 100 districts shows that pretty much every district considers illness, a death in the family and religious observations grounds for an excused absence. Districts differ on whether excused absences should include doctor appointments, court appearances, college visits and family illness. The definition adopted by the state board Wednesday removes some of that discretion from local boards.