The results of a recent survey conducted by Summit School District show 25 percent of respondents were specifically concerned with proposed language eliminating vacations as a possible excused absence.
In the survey, 164 of 651 total commenters specifically stated they were opposed to the proposed change in the policy to remove vacations from absences that may be considered excused at the discretion of the principal. Thirty-six people specifically commented they were in favor of the change.
As of Nov. 15 there were nearly 10,000 absences recorded at the nine schools since the beginning of the school year in August. Those 9,994 absences included illnesses, but did not include times students were tardy to school or left early. In 2012 over the same period of time — the first 60 days of school — there were 9,576 recorded absences, and 10,346 in 2011.
“Classroom time is critical,” Breckenridge Elementary principal Jonathan Johnson said. “You want to start off the morning right; the kiddos are most alert then. A kid comes in even five or 10 minutes late and that’s a huge disruption.”
State statute defines chronic absenteeism, or “habitual truant,” which may result in judicial proceedings, as four unexcused absences during any one month, or 10 unexcused absences in one year.
The Summit School District Board of Education unanimously voted Tuesday, Dec. 10, to repeal policy JH-R, the old student absences and excuses document, and to approve updates and language cleanup to the truancy policy JHB and compulsory attendance ages policy JEA.
The school board did not conduct a final vote on policy JH, student absences and excuses, which contains the controversial elimination of family vacation time as an excused absence.
“It’s not our job to judge when and under what circumstances people can take their kids out of school; we’re not here to decide what is a good or bad reason,” board president Margaret Carlson said. “There are educational opportunities outside the classroom, as well as unavoidable absences. It’s the frequency we’re concerned with.”
Neighboring Eagle County Schools follows an attendance policy similar to the old Summit School District one, in which the principal determines whether family vacation time counts as an excused absence. In Academy District 20 in Colorado Springs, family vacations can also only be excused absences if approved by the principal.
In Denver Public Schools, only temporary illness or injury, and a physical, mental or emotional disability or condition, count as excused absences. There is no specific mention of family vacations in the Aspen School District policy either.
“We want to work together for a solution so teachers can have kids in class on a consistent basis,” Summit School District superintendent Heidi Pace said.
Parents also suggested the district break down the data further, to actually see how many of the 9,994 absences were because of vacations.
“The challenges we have with attendance are not about the policy language,” Carlson said. “It’s a question of how we go about creating a mutual understanding and respect for the time spent in the classroom.”
Parent Samantha Kosanovich expressed concern at the meeting about accountability not only from parents and students, but also from the teachers, with an increasing number of substitutes in the district.
“Nothing has been said about teachers who are absent,” she said. “All I keep hearing is how we need more subs, how we’re getting permanent subs. When you discuss consistency, it’s a little ironic.”
In the survey, a total of 466 people responded to the question about the typical number of days their student misses, with the majority answering zero to seven days per school year. In the comments, 64 people suggested changes to the school calendar to accommodate resort business and tourism in the county.
There are 174 elementary school contact days — when students are scheduled to be in class — and 176 for secondary.
“It’s a big snowball that rolls and rolls and rolls, which effects teachers and staff and the whole district,” Frisco Elementary principal Renea Hill said. “It’s bigger than just missing a week, it makes a difference.”
The current 2013-14 calendar has these days off: Labor Day, Wednesday to Friday of Thanksgiving, December holiday break from Dec. 23 to Jan. 3/6, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, winter break from Feb. 24 to 28, spring break from April 14 to 18, Memorial Day, and two teacher comp days at the end of parent/teacher conference week. There is also one teacher professional development day with no school for students, and a half-day release Aug. 20.
Those times total 30 days off for elementary school students and 29 days off for secondary students. This year’s 2013-14 calendar was last revised in May; the school board looks at the calendar every year.
Teryn Guadagnoli, owner of Modis restaurant in Breckenridge, said at the meeting as a small-business owner with two children in elementary school, her family has to vacation in May because she has to work during the busier seasons.
“I’m sorry we have to leave in October and May to take our vacations, but that’s our only time we have,” she said. “I can’t shut down on Christmas; I can’t take Thanksgiving off. February is the busiest time of the year.”
In the survey, 42 people expressed concern about students coming to school sick and spreading illness in classrooms. Temporarily illness is listed as an excused absence in the district. Respondents also suggested creating more positive incentives to encourage behavior change, as well as asking medical and dental providers to offer more evening and weekend hours.
“What’s being said and asked of us, look at teachers as well,” Kosanovich said. “There had to be accountability across the board.”
The school board will conduct its next meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14, at the central administration office. The board must eventually vote on policy JH, though a date has not been determined.
“I don’t know what the next steps are with this,” Carlson said. “It’s a much bigger conversation and it’s not black and white.”