- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Despite being in the top 1 percent of her class, Lauren Molloy was at risk of failing to receive credit for courses last semester after a series of absences for medical appointments were counted against her by the Austin school district.

Molloy, a McCallum High School senior, has a rare congenital bone disease that requires her to receive weekly physical therapy, and last semester she had multiple doctor visits and exams, including MRIs.

Such medical visits previously didn’t affect whether a student received course credit, but now they do as the school district ramps up its policies regarding absences.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Della Molloy-Daugherty, Lauren’s mom. “It made me realize what a headache the new attendance policy is.”

Students can appeal to an attendance committee if they’ve attended at least 75 percent of the time, and they can make up classes by attending Saturday school to restore their class credit. But some parents - including about a dozen who wrote letters to their campus administrators - are complaining that Austin’s stricter policy will mean more children going to school when they’re sick and more hassle for the parents of students who struggle with chronic ailments. At least one neighboring district is more lenient.

State law requires students in kindergarten through 12th grade to be in attendance for at least 90 percent of the days a class is offered. But districts have varying interpretations of the law and offer different exceptions. Before this school year, the Austin district only denied credit for unexcused absences.

The Austin district’s new practice, which started in the current school year, counts it against the student anytime he or she misses the entire day, regardless of whether there is a doctor’s note.

Religious holidays, a limited number of college visits and school-sponsored events remain as excused absences, as do medical absences involving a health care professional during school hours if the student is in attendance for at least part of the day.

Such excused absences are outlined in the law.

In communications with parents, the school district says the change is meant to bring Austin into compliance with the law.

But one parent points out in a letter to the district that the law states that students “may be excused for temporary absence resulting from any cause acceptable to the teacher, principal or superintendent of the school.”

Another parent said the change “really has us reconsidering the public school option. Sadly, I can see parents pulling their children out of public schools and exercising a home schooling option that would offer more flexibility with kids that are sick often.”

The Leander district’s practice is similar to Austin’s. In Round Rock, a documented illness with a doctor’s note counts against the student’s 90 percent attendance requirement. The Hays school district doesn’t count absences with a doctor’s note against the attendance requirement.

State funding is tied in part to attendance, and some parents raised concerns that money was the real reason behind the change.

District officials say that’s not the case.

“We want to make sure we’re following the law correctly,” Austin School Board President Kendall Pace said.

Ultimately, Molloy-Daugherty was able to retrieve documentation for the doctor appointments and emergency room visit and ensure her daughter received credit.

Another parent, Anissa Ryland, called the new rule “shortsighted” and warned that parents might feel pressured to send their child to school despite public health recommendations that a child should be fever-free for 24 hours.

“A lot of people are going to get exposed,” she said.


Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com

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