Mental health days affect daily attendance

Kristin Chan ’07 sits in a Rugby classroom during her senior class meeting, filling out what can only be described as a monster of a survey on students’ workloads: 25 pages of questions about extracurriculars, AP classes and how much time students truly spend online every night while working on homework. She gets to question number 59: “During the past trimester, I have missed the following days of school because of my inability to complete an assignment, study for a test or because I just felt overwhelmed: 0 days, 1 day, 2 days, 3 days, 4 days or more.”

Without much thought, she circles “0 days” and moves on.

Though many upper school students are known for their utter refusal to miss school, even when faced with a high fever and incessant coughing, others have taken to taking a day off school after a particularly late night. Some label these days “sick days,” while other have embraced the prospect of taking a mental health day every once in a while.

The survey was created by a FAC subcommittee on student workload. The committee has begun to filter through the results, but will not finish calculating until spring.

Two weeks after filling out the workload survey, Chan missed school for the first time in her senior year. The next day she missed school for the second time.

“I had a test on Thursday [first period] and I came to school because I didn’t want to miss it,” she said, but then Chan went home to sleep. “I had already done the homework and everything for that day, but I really didn’t feel good, so I went home. I was planning on going to school the next day, but then I slept for 20 hours. On Friday, I wasn’t as bad as I was Thursday. I just didn’t wake up. I needed rest. I hadn’t gotten any.”

Though Chan’s father let her sleep through Friday without any indication of a high fever or flu-like symptoms, her parents are not believers in the mental health day as a concept.

“They don’t let me skip school unless I’m actually sick,” she said. “If I’m not feeling well, maybe like, feeling not that bad, but not really good, they’ll just be like, ‘You’re fine, go take medicine and go to school.’”

Some parents, however, do encourage their children to take a day off. Colin Turner ’08 said his parents don’t mind as long as he is responsible about making up work missed and—once in a while—will write him an excuse note to hand in to Attendance Coordinator Gabriel Preciado saying he had been sick.

“I’ve become notorious for not being in school nowadays,” Turner said. “If it is just one of those days where I really can’t get out of bed, and I have no big projects or tests coming up, then it helps a lot.”

Preciado often finds seemingly healthy students in his office claiming a need to go home early due to illness, he said.

“I notice a lot of students coming to school ill,” he said. “That’s what the note says, but to me, they appear healthy. I’m not in the position to assume anything.”

Preciado never questions the parents’ notes or calls, believing it is not his place to do so, he said.
The only time he gets involved in a student’s excused absences is if a concerned teacher who believes a student may be purposefully missing test days, asks for the student’s attendance record.

In these cases, however, it is usually the teacher or the student’s dean who deals with the situation.
School psychologist Luba Bek has recommended that students take a day off due to stress, though not often, she said.

“In my belief, it’s better to be physically healthy then get an extra A,” she said.

Many of the students who talk to her “with the door open” come to her about stress, Bek said, and those that do are mainly juniors and first-semester seniors. She also allows every student in her Choices and Challenges class to take one period off for a break.

For many students, the prospect of making up work missed during one day off of school is overwhelming enough to scare them out of taking any days off. Deans Jason Honsel and Jim Patterson have both recommended that students go home when they seem under the weather, but they show up at school anyway.

Patterson said he has, on occasion, excused students from class because they were too overwhelmed. Among her friends, Eliza Eddison ’07 is infamous for her refusal to miss school, even when ill.

“As much as everyone needs a day off now and then, I always freak myself out about what I’m missing, and then I end up more sick than I started out,” she said.

When Chan thinks about making up the two days of missed work, she sighs.

“Oh, [it was] horrible,” she said with a laugh that conveys more apprehension and exhaustion than humor. “It’s really bad missing a day, and if you miss two days in a row…” Her voice trails off warningly. “Monday I would have had two frees and break, but instead I had no frees and I had to stay after school to take a test. Today I would have had one free, but I had to come to school early to meet with one teacher, and I had to meet with another teacher during my free. I still feel like I’m behind.”

Chan did feel that her teachers were, for the most part, understanding about her plight, she said.

“None of them were mean about it, but some were way nicer than others,” she said.

Bek appeals to teachers to be sympathetic when students miss a class.

“Teachers take it personally with students missing school, but it’s not personal,” she said. “They’re kids.”

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