🏫 One bill requires mental health days as state-excused absences

🏫 One bill expands schools' absence policies to include mental health

🏫 Critics are wary of additional requirements for districts

If a child had to miss school to undergo cancer treatment or open-heart surgery, their absence from school wouldn't be excused on the state level.

So that leaves critics of legislation wondering why New Jersey would ever consider excusing a student's mental health struggles from official absenteeism numbers.

"We believe that would be viewed as unfair and inequitable by students, parents, and districts alike," said Jennie Lamon, assistant director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

Lamon made her comments on Thursday before the Senate Education Committee, which heard testimony on two bills that touch on the issue of mental health as it pertains to school absences.

Both bills were up for discussion only, not a vote.

"My concern is, carving out specific mental health days will only increase absenteeism, which has risen significantly following the pandemic," Melanie Schulz, of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, told lawmakers. "Additionally ... giving students more time out of school could worsen the problem."

Require vs. permit

Under one bill sponsored by state Sens. Richard Codey, D-Essex, and Joseph Cryan, D-Union, each public school student would be entitled to five absences for mental or behavioral health reasons, and they would be considered as "state-recognized excused absences."

State-recognized excused absences, which currently cover instances such as religious holidays and college visits, do not count against a student's or school's absenteeism numbers. Locally, districts might excuse students for instances such as illnesses or dentist's appointments — but those absences are still on a student's record.

Students raised up hands green chalk board in classroom

A student's take

"We believe that to truly make a difference, a state mandate is needed that requires, not just permits, all schools to follow this policy," said Natalie Veale, a junior at Hopewell Valley Central High School in Pennington. "Mental illness does not discriminate and is in schools everywhere ... meaning it requires an all-encompassing solution."

Another piece of legislation that was up for discussion on Monday would simply provide districts with the authority to include mental health in their definition of "excused absence." The bill is sponsored by state Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

"We want these bills to be well thought-out," Gopal said.

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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