We got Laura into therapy, and her doctors found she'd had the Epstein-Barr virus, resulting in frequent relapses. She was also anemic. In addition, she had a sleep-wake disorder and her ongoing sleep deprivation lowered her immune system. Her therapist said she didn't seem depressed or anxious and that she didn't know how she could help her since her illnesses didn't seem to have an emotional basis. Laura took iron pills and sat in front of a UV lamp for 45 minutes every morning to resolve her sleep issues, but her illnesses continued.
None of those explanations were taken seriously by the school staff, and they said she was truant. We had to bring a doctor's note to excuse all absences. Later we had to get her to school no matter how sick she was so that they, not we, could determine whether or not she was actually sick.
One morning I forced Laura, feverish and vomiting, to get in the car with a bucket on her lap. That day the school let me take her home, but I'd had enough. No more taking her to the doctor when all she needed was to stay home and rest. No more dragging her to school puking in a bucket, I explained during one of the school's daily phone calls.
I learned from consulting a lawyer that a student isn't officially truant unless the school sends its notification in writing.
Whenever Laura was sick, I picked up all her school work. After she had completed it, I brought it back to her teachers the next day until she was back in school. Laura made the honor roll.
My husband and I were called in to a meeting, and I hired Laura's therapist to attend with us. In raised voices, the staff said Laura was truant and that if she missed any more school we would be sent to the Student Attendance Review Board (SARB). It was a nightmare, and I felt isolated and alone.
Afterward, Laura's therapist commented on how rude they'd been. She used to work on a SARB in another school district, she said. All of the students referred to her had understandable reasons for missing school. One student had a suicidal mother, and the student feared that if he went to school, he'd come home to find her dead.
"Besides," the therapist continued, "if they SARB you now that Laura's made the honor roll, they'll laugh you right out of there."
I got yet another angry phone call from the school: "Laura's truant."
"No, she isn't," I said. "You never sent us that in writing."
"I have a completed packet in front of me for the SARB, and I'm going to send it," was the response.
Fear seized me.
"No, you're not," I said. "Laura made the honor roll."
Silence. She knew I had her, that I'd seen through all their tricks and hollow accusations.
Laura's high school never mentioned her absences. In fact, the attendance lady was Laura's junior varsity softball coach, and it never became an issue.
The state considers any student chronically absent if they miss 10% or more school days, regardless of the reasons for the absence. According to Palo Alto Unified School District's SWIFT Plan, the pandemic brought chronic absenteeism up significantly during the 2020-21 school year, with 23.8% rise for low-income, 21.5% rise for Latino, 19.7% rise for Black, 10.9% rise for white and 4.9% rise of absences for Asian students. What is the district's reaction to chronic absenteeism now, I wonder?
In my opinion, Palo Alto schools need to value the well-being of students and their families and work with them as a team in addressing student or family health issues for what is in the best interests of the child.
The following are tips for families with health issues that cause their child to often miss school:
1. Know your child's health needs and communicate them to the school.
2. Don't accept accusations of your child being truant unless the school sends it to you in writing.
3. Find a way to pick up your child's school work after each day of school they miss, and return it to their teachers the next day.
4. Help your child keep their grades up; the higher they are, the more leverage you'll have with the school in preventing your child from being SARBed.
5. Don't take it personally; the school staff are doing their job by following the school's policies. Treat them with respect in all interactions.
6. Get the support of all medical professionals involved in your child's care in the form of letters, and if possible, ask them to attend meetings with school staff.
7. If the school requires doctor's notes for missed school days, ask the doctor for a letter excusing multiple blocks of absences at once.
8. Don't tell the school to which your child will matriculate about the issue; they can't hold previous years' absences against your child, and there's no point in encouraging them to in the future.
9. Consider homeschooling.
Laura graduated and got a partial scholarship to a rigorous university. She works at Sequoia Hospital as a physical therapy and rehabilitation aide and plans on becoming a physical therapist. We got through that difficult time, and with the right support and advocacy other families can too.
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