“Mental Health Days” or Absenteeism?

8-day policy blurs distinction



Jasmine Porter, Co-Editor

As WTHS students prepare to enter their second month of the 2022-2023 school year, the stress of everyday life is beginning to catch up and the dread of academic pressure looms over the heads of many. Although it’s always good to get back into the swing of things, between demoralizing world events, ever-volatile American politics, and late start days that can’t seem to come soon enough, it should come as no surprise that mental health is taking a turn for the worse. Outside stressors are only being compounded by school obligations, however, with around 70% of Blue Devils participating in at least one extracurricular activity and another fourth taking one or more AP courses.

Fortunately, due to 2021 Illinois Board of Education legislation, starting in 2022 all Illinois students would be granted five excused mental health days during which a child may take the day off from classes without a doctor’s note. They’d also be allowed to make up any work missed during their absence in accordance with teacher policies. Despite this, evidence suggests that the feature was underutilized state-wide, with EducationWeek reporting in March that at the local Glenbrook High School District 225, only 1.5% of the district’s some 5,000 students had taken a mental health day up to that point. 

Mental health days are still available, but here’s the catch: taking off for this reason will no longer be marked as a no-count absence, negatively impacting students under a new 8-day absence policy. Ironically, this was announced to students and parents during National Suicide Prevention Week. I won’t describe the attendance policy in full, but to summarize main points from the Student-Parent Handbook:

  • All students are allowed at most 8 absences (excluding no-count absences) per semester before one’s grades may be impacted. This includes both excused and unexcused absences.
    • Consequences for going beyond the 8-day limit include a loss of credit on work assigned the day of the absence, as well as a 10% reduction for major assessments that take place on the day of the absence. 

When taking into account the differences in how excused versus unexcused absences are treated by school administration, the situation becomes even more complicated. Although students are still allowed to make up any work assigned during an excused absence including mental health days if someone were to fully utilize their five mental health days, three further absences for reasons such as illness without a doctors’ note could begin to impact academics. This policy could be especially impactful for seniors, as using all five days in their second semester will prevent them from being exempted from that semester’s cumulative assessments. For athletes, you may not attend sports practices or play games on the day of a mental health absence, though it is unclear whether this same principle applies for students involved in other school organizations. 

Mental health days will also contribute to chronic absenteeism, defined by WTHS administration as “absences that total 10% or more of school days within the academic year, including absences with and without valid cause”. As of 2021, Warren TWP HSD 121 rates of chronic absenteeism are at 30% (data possibly impacted by COVID-19), while 37% are chronically truant. 

Though the use of mental health days has been limited, these changes are important to note for anyone intending on using them going forward. And while COVID-19 may have prompted the introduction of said absences originally, students have had to and will always have to contend with crippling mental health concerns during typical school years. 

One might go as far as to argue that the concept of mental health days was questionable since implementation as taking a day or two off from school may very well lead to additional stress down the road as uncompleted assignments pile up throughout one’s absence. Nevertheless, any student now considering using their mental health days has but one question to ask themselves: is it worth the risk?