Utah lawmakers want to remove requirement for students to get a doctor’s note when they’re sick — or just need a mental health day

The changes come with two bills that have now passed in committee.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) In this file photo, a kid plays in a cardboard room that's part of an exhibit to educate visitors on how to care for their mental wellness. A pair of bills in the 2021 legislative session would make it easier for kids to take a day off from school, including for their mental health.

Utah students would no longer need to get a doctor’s note to have an absence excused at school when they’re out sick under a new bill passed in committee this week.

Instead, the measure — HB116 — would only require a parent to call in to their kid’s school to validate the missed day was for an illness. And that could include mental health, with a second bill running alongside it.

Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, said his proposal is largely meant to help families avoid unnecessary medical expenses.

If a kid has a stomachache or a migraine, there’s likely no reason to take them to the doctor and they just need a day to rest, Robertson said. But if a school requires a note for the absence, a family might have to decide if it’s worth spending $100 to go in to their physician. And some, he added, can’t afford that.

“This hurts those that are most vulnerable,” Robertson said Friday during a House Education Committee meeting. And that also includes big families, like his, he noted.

Robertson recounted how when his seven kids got strep throat, he was required to take each one in individually to get checked by a doctor. And it ended up costing $1,000 total.

Not all schools or districts require a note, the lawmaker said, but it can be “an extra burden” in those that do. And, he fears, it may also discourage students from staying home when they’re not feeling well — which could be especially problematic during the COVID-19 pandemic.

HB116 would prohibit a school from requiring any formal signed note from a physician for a student’s absence to be excused.

“You’re right that there’s some privilege with a doctor’s note,” said Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray. “Not everyone had the access and the means to get one.”

Typically, if a student’s absence is confirmed to be for a legitimate medical reason, it’s excused. The kid would be given extra time to complete missed work, and it wouldn’t count toward an overall absence rate.

If it’s not excused, though, and a student has too many absences, concerns about truancy arise. If a student misses too many classes, they can fail or be held back. And a parent can be questioned for neglecting their kid’s education.

Kwan worried that there may be some issues with parents abusing the new provision under the bill — calling to excuse absences that weren’t for health reasons. But, overall, she and other members of the committee said that the benefits outweigh that concern and that chronic truancy could and should be dealt with in a separate measure. They passed HB116 out of committee unanimously.

With her “yes” vote, Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, specifically talked about illnesses that may not be obvious by looking at someone. Her daughter, she said, has a brain malformation. And there is no need to go to a doctor every time she doesn’t feel well to get a note.

Sometimes, too, she added, her kids also just feel stressed and need a day off. It’s not anxiety, but it’s healthy for them to take a break, she said.

That’s being addressed by a concurrent resolution — HB81 — running alongside HB116 and also passed unanimously in committee Friday.

Under that second proposal, needing a mental health day would be added as as valid reason for a student to be out sick and excused from missing school.

Currently, state code does include “mental illness” along with physical ailments as a reason for an excused absence. That was added about three years ago. But, as it stands, it has to be diagnosed by a doctor to count.

Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, said during the committee meeting that sometimes a kid just needs a day off for “mental health” that doesn’t arise to anxiety or depression.

“Our kids are under some pressures like never before,” he said.

Winder’s daughter, Jessica Lee, who is the youth advocacy chair for the Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, joined the committee to testify. “Just as we all have physical health, we all have mental health. And we need to take care of that,” she said.

That could include dealing with a failure or rejection or the death of a loved one. It’s usually temporary — as opposed to some mental illnesses — but it’s important nonetheless, she said, to address and de-stigmatize.

Ben Horsley, the spokesperson for Granite District, said the schools there are already allowing that, but the bill would help “codify existing practice” and expand it to other districts in the state.

It could also help parents or schools recognize when a student might need more help if they’re taking off several days for mental health. Winder noted that Utah has the fifth highest rate for youth suicides; he believes this is a small measure to start addressing that.

Birkeland called the addition “excellent,” especially noting her kids’ needs. And Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay and a retired educator, said that teachers could use that, as well. Winder said sick days for educators are negotiated with each district’s union, but it’s something to look into for the future.

Together, the two bills would allow a student to take time off from school for physical or mental health, without needing a note to excuse it. Both measures will now move forward to the House floor.