There’s no doubt the United States has had one of the worst Covid-19 responses of all industrialized nations. With 4 percent of the world’s population, we had 20 percent of the Covid deaths as of October. We have also provided the least in terms of economic relief compared to other industrialized nations, putting our small businesses and individual citizens at risk of financial ruin.

Much of this has been blamed on the current administration, but it’s important to also recognize longstanding policies and societal values that may play a hand in disease spread in the future.

One such area parents should be paying attention to is the intense focus on showing up (be it to school or work) at all costs—even when a person is ill.  

The Pressure to Attend

As recently as 2019, seven out of ten parents admitted to sending sick children to school. They cited work pressure, high childcare costs, and school attendance policies as reasons for making these choices.

Our society hasn’t ever been set up to encourage sick individuals to stay home—and this is perhaps most evident at the school level. Especially in states where funding is tied directly to attendance.

“Oftentimes, state funding for schools is based upon ‘average daily membership’ or the like, which may reflect school attendance/student enrollment on a certain date (or an average of certain dates,” school law attorney Mark J. Sommaruga of Pullman & Comley recently explained. He said this leads to school districts creating strict attendance policies, both to discourage absenteeism and truancy and ensure funding remains stable.

Unfortunately, the result is often parents sending sick kids to school out of fear of getting in trouble.

Early elementary school teacher Zach VanderGraaff, founder of Dynamic Music Room, said he’s seen this for himself firsthand in Michigan, where he teaches.

“Laws around truancy are scary and all, but nothing motivates our districts more than when students reach the point of funding loss,” he said. “At this point, letters are sent, calls are made, and visits home may happen.”

VanderGraaff said the downfalls of these policies are obvious.

“One, it puts intense pressure on the schools themselves to manage the attendance and be the bad guy, when in reality, truancy is a crime on the state level,” he explained. “Second, it’s so rigid and doesn’t allow for flexibility.”

In the past, he said students who have undergone health or personal issues and missed a lot of school as a result have then also had to face unneeded pressure from the school system.

“This is especially hard on parents and guardians who don’t need to be dealing with this in emergencies,” he said.

The issue extends beyond even that, with family medicine practitioner Tolu Abikoye, MD, saying that even in the midst of the pandemic, these policies have encouraged schools to make decisions that are not guided by science but by finances.

“I remember talking to a parent in Wisconsin a few months ago. To my surprise, she informed me their school was planning to open despite an increase in number of cases,” Abikoye said.

Still, VanderGraaff said there are some benefits to strict school attendance policies.

“It communicates clearly to parents and staff what constitutes attendance and where to go from there,” he said. “It all stems from a place of doing what’s best for students. Students learn best when they participate consistently. This can’t happen when classes are missed often.”

The Impact of Covid-19

That’s not to say these policies are without flaws, or even that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. If anything, Covid-19 has taught us there needs to be more flexibility in our society when it comes to encouraging sick individuals to stay home.

“The CDC has urged employers not to have policies that encourage sick people to come to work, and just as you do not want a sick teacher reporting to work, the same is true for students as well,” Sommaruga said.

Unfortunately, VanderGraaff said sick kids coming to school is all too common. “The fear of truancy forces parents to send their kids when it may not be the best course of action.”

He said since the pandemic, parents have even sent sick kids to school who have tested positive for Covid-19. Not always because of truancy concerns, but also out of a belief that the pandemic isn’t real.

There have been no consequences for such actions, he said.

“Naturally, we see the failures of such rigidity during COVID times,” VanderGraaff conceded. “At the beginning of the pandemic, the schools and parents struggled to find ways to balance what’s best for kids with the legal requirements of attendance. It proved and still proves to be a large obstacle to providing students with the best education under the circumstances.”

The other major downfall of these types of policies, he said, is that tying funding to attendance puts the education of the whole student population at risk.

“Yes, students are each worth their own money amount for their butts in a chair, but that money is used to provide educational experiences for their whole class and the entire school.”

Abikoye had additional concerns. “From a public health perspective, the strict policies have contributed to the spread,” he said.

Will The Pandemic Encourage Policy Changes?

Sommaruga wants to believe that what we’ve learned this last year will lead to societal changes that prioritize public health in the future.

“Just as there has been discussion of the end of the old-fashioned snow day, the pandemic may lead to permanent approaches that bring the school to the student whenever the student cannot come to school,” he said.

But VanderGraaff said it may be more complicated than that.

“In my experience at several schools throughout Michigan, and in speaking with educators across the state, school district administration and school boards are in support of somewhat flexible attendance policies, specifically in cases of medical or personal emergencies,” he said. “However, it’s the state and federal government’s requirements that limit such compassionate flexibility.”

While parents and students tend to direct their anger at schools in these situations, he said it’s not the schools that are to blame. “They’re just trying to do what’s best for the student while protecting the funding of the school at large. If a school loses enough attendance, it may even lose all of its funding from certain sources.”

Given that information, it may be on parents to begin lobbying their local governments and politicians for change. If we’ve learned nothing else this year, it’s that staying home when sick is the best thing that can be done for the community at large. But if school attendance policies prohibit that, we may be no better off a year from now than we are today.

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