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Absence policy outrages high-achieving students

Ana Bursac, a junior at Durham School of the Arts, was involved in a car accident last semester that kept her in the hospital for 10 days. In October, she caught mononucleosis. Around the same time, a friend passed away.

Despite the turbulence–and her many absences–Bursac maintained all A’s and B’s. As a result, she thought she’d be exempt from finals because the Durham County School Board’s had eased its exams policy the previous year. But in November, she learned that the board had restored the full policy. She’d have to take her exams after all. 

“You’re telling students to not put themselves first,” Bursac said at a School Board meeting in January. “You are forcing unhealthy habits upon students.”

DSA students say they felt blindsided by the shift, and that they received minimal communication before November, when they got the news in a school-wide email.  

The policy adds extra stress to high-achievers who get sick or need to miss days for reasons such as college tours and sports, students say. They contend that it also encourages students to attend school while ill.  

“We didn’t really have time to intervene, like on the front hand,” DSA student Ella Perin told the 9th Street Journal in an interview. “So going to the board meeting was, like, hoping that they’ll get it back on their agenda and rethink it.”

Under the policy, high school students are exempt from exams if they have an A average in a course and no more than the three absences for the semester, or six absences for the year. For students with B averages, that number is two absences per semester and four per year. These totals include both excused and unexcused absences.

 On September 23, 2021, the School Board suspended the attendance requirements for exams not mandated by the state. But the board restored the policy in full for this school year.

At January’s meeting, Chloe Daniel, DSA’S student body president, asked the board to change the policy so that only students with 10 unexcused absences are required to take exams.

School Board member Natalie Beyer said she appreciated the students sharing their experiences at the meeting. Some end-of course exams are required by state law, she said, but the school board may be able to ease its policy regarding local exams, as it did during the pandemic.   

“We want our policies to be supporting students and their mastery of learning and not be punitive,” Beyer said. “And we certainly don’t want students coming to school sick.”

Beyer said that she hopes to continue the conversation about updating the policy with teachers and administrators. 

Last fall, Janiak Stein, a freshman at Riverside High School, had the contagious Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), which attacks the lungs and breathing passages, he said in an interview with the 9th Street Journal. He also has asthma. He is a straight-A student, but he was too bedridden to attend school, he said. He still had to take a final exam.

Stein’s brother, Isaac, said that Riverside High teachers do not consistently enforce the policy, leaving students confused. 

“If that is the policy, they want–people to come to class on time and be consistent with that–it shouldn’t mean that that is also the case when you’re sick,” said Isaac, who did not hear that the absence policy would return until November or December. “That shouldn’t be considered good attendance.”

Parents also worry about the absence policy’s impact on their children’s mental and physical health.

Kelly Harris Perin, Ella Perin’s mother and a former school teacher, said that she was “impressed” with how DPS managed the school system during the pandemic. Given the health precautions DPS took then, the policy’s reinstatement surprised her.  

“I certainly understand that we need to incentivize students to come to school and we want them to be in class and learning,” Perin said. “But I don’t think this particular policy really does that…I’ve heard of a lot of kids going to school sick, not doing things like taking time for mental health or doctor’s appointments.”

Lauren Formy-Duval is a psychologist in Durham and has two students at DSA. She emailed members of the school board in August, encouraging them to waive the absence policy again.

Students can catch up when they are absent and still master the material, especially when they have access to computers, she said. 

“If a student has an A in the course, then they are understanding the material and they’re understanding the contents of the course,” Formy-Duval said. “How many times they’ve been absent or present feels kind of irrelevant, other than it’s just a motivator that they’re trying to use to get kids to come for more often.”