Utah students could miss school for a mental health day under a bill that passed through the Senate

A second bill the Senate approved would prohibit schools from requiring students to provide a doctor’s note to have an absence excused when they’re out sick.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Science teacher Robert Campos wipes down desks in his classroom as students return to Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Feb. 8, 2021. Utah lawmakers are moving to make it easier for students to receive an excused absence for a mental health day.

Utah’s school kids could take a mental health day off under a bill that received unanimous approval from the Senate on Wednesday.

HB81 would consider such an absence a “valid excuse” on the same level as a physical illness, a family death, an approved school activity or another approved reason established by a local school entity.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, has noted that Utah has one of the highest rates of suicide in the country. And as the pandemic has exacerbated mental health challenges for many, he’s expressed hope that the bill could help ease the burden on students who are struggling.

“Some of our youth are in some dark places at times,” Winder said in a previous interview. “If they know they can be excused from school for their mental health, that alone can relieve some pressure and help reduce suicides.”

The bill, which is modeled after a similar program that was implemented in Oregon, previously passed 60-5 in the House.

State code currently includes “mental illness” along with physical ailments as a reason for an excused absence. But it currently has to be diagnosed by a doctor to count — a requirement that would be removed under a second school attendance bill the Senate passed Wednesday.

HB116, which received a favorable 23-3 vote, would prohibit schools from requiring students to provide a doctor’s note to have an absence excused when they’re out for a mental or physical illness. Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo and the bill’s House sponsor, has said that’s an effort largely meant to help families avoid unnecessary medical expenses.

Not all schools or districts require a note, but he told lawmakers during the bill’s committee hearing in the House last month that it can be “an extra burden” in those that do — and could even discourage students from staying home when they’re not feeling well to avoid the expense of a doctor’s visit.

Both HB116 and HB81 passed without debate on Wednesday and now require a final procedural vote in the Senate before moving to the governor’s desk for his signature or veto.