Washington students will be able to miss school for mental health reasons starting next school year, under new state law and rules approved by the Office of the Superintendent of Washington. State.
Absences will be excused for students with symptoms related to mental illness or problems related to their mental health condition, and for medical appointments related to mental health. These can include counseling, mental health wellness and behavioral health treatment — including inpatient or outpatient treatment, under rules approved by the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, or OSPI.
Absences for reasons of physical health will continue to be excused.
In total, students will have an unlimited number of excused absences to use for mental health needs. (Some schools have procedures for contacting students with excessive absences to bring them back to class.) A doctor’s note or medical diagnosis is not a requirement for an excused absence for mental health reasons, Bridget Underdahl said. , the supervisor of Project AWARE, a program within OSPI that promotes mental and behavioral health education.
“Mental health is as important as physical health and is equally important to one’s overall well-being,” she said, reading a clarification made in House Bill 1834, which triggered change.
The policy change comes about a year after Governor Jay Inslee declared a youth mental health crisis. In doing so, he focused on the essential role schools play in supporting children’s mental health and demanded that school buildings reopen to all grades.
However, for some students, returning to class has been stressful and overwhelming after a year of online school. The pandemic has worsened the trauma and coping skills of children, and the lack of available services and staff in mental health facilities has increased waiting times for treatment.
HB 1834, sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, aimed to alleviate some of the difficulty of going to school while dealing with a mental health issue.
After Inslee signed the bill, OSPI worked with a student advisory group to develop the specific policies that would be implemented in schools. The public had about six weeks to comment on the drafted language, and the office held a public hearing on May 24 via Zoom. Rules were adopted soon after.
Jerri Clark, who founded Mothers of the Mentally Ill and works as Parent Resource Coordinator for Partnerships for Action, Voices for Empowerment, testified at the meeting.
“Many of the families I serve feel shamed and blamed by the truancy system when their children struggle to maintain their well-being and they can’t attend school because of it,” said she declared. “There’s so much stigma about missing school because of a mental wellbeing issue.”
Families also often face inconsistencies in how schools handle children’s absences for mental health needs, she said.
Other states, including Utah, Maine and Illinois, have included mental health among reasons to excuse absences. Colorado, Virginia and Arizona are directing local school districts or state education agencies to allow students to take a certain number of mental health days. Nevada allows mental or behavioral health professionals to exempt students from school.
OSPI will communicate with districts this month and August about the implementation of the new rules.