The recent emphasis by the St. Joseph School District to promote better attendance is laudable. I am pleased to see the improved attendance resulting from the Strive for 5 program.

The school district has other policies that involve attendance that are problematic. The district has a policy in which high attendance is rewarded by not having to take final examinations. Attendance also can be tied to a student being allowed to participate in other events.

While such a policy encourages students and parents to be responsible, and to weigh carefully any reasons for absence, it does have a negative impact on a student’s ability to seek and receive medical care.

I know that the curriculum of the district includes health classes which encourage students to responsibly seek medical care and appropriate follow-up. The current district expectations actively discourage this.

In our adolescent medical practice, every patient, without exception, is of school age. Many (nearly 50 percent) of our middle and high school students have ongoing mental health needs that require medical visits and follow-up care for effective treatment.

While we actively try to accommodate our patients and slot them in after school whenever possible, there are only about four such appointments on any given day that exist in after-school hours. This forces the rest of the students and parents to have to choose between school attendance requirements and seeking needed medical care. If they choose the latter, they are penalized. All students receive a medical excuse, but that does not mitigate for the student in the attendance tally. It simply “doesn’t count.”

We see that same problem manifest with acute illness. We see a high number of patients who should have sought medical attention earlier, but who are attending school anyway with contagious illnesses, who carefully attempt to shield their symptoms and attend anyway, because they don’t want to be “docked” and face final exams. This practice is ultimately self-defeating to both the student and the school. The student will now miss more days because recovery will be longer, and the contagious illness will have spread to many more students.

A more reasonable approach would be to adopt a modification similar to that in force in our neighboring North Kansas City School District. They, too, have policies and enticements tied to attendance, but with reasonable modifications that serve both the student’s educational and health needs.

Their policy says, “With proper documentation, the following absences will NOT count toward the attendance consequences,” and goes on to list 12 items, among which are 1. medically documented illness, 2. documented dental … or doctor’s appointment, and 3. verified counseling appointments.

As a former educator, the no-finals policy based on attendance has always seemed wrong-headed. While there could be a case made for excusing finals for students with excellent academic performance, to tie it to attendance doesn’t make much sense.

Finals can serve as a necessary and beneficial educational tool to help re-learn or learn better skills and knowledge that have been only minimally mastered. Moreover, to penalize a conscientious student who also has a medical problem requiring ongoing care is obtuse.

My plea to the school district is to allow patients who require medical care to be allowed to do so without fear of loss of “benefits.”  The practice of accepting a legitimate “excused absence” that does not penalize a student should be policy throughout the district. The schools will get healthier students, ready to learn, in exchange.

Dr. Timothy Murphy was a teacher, first at Cathedral School in St. Joseph and later at Holy Trinity School in Lenexa, Kansas, before entering medical practice. Dr. Murphy completed his bachelor’s degree in Biology and Secondary Education at Missouri Western State University. He obtained his medical degree from the University of Kansas, and completed his residency at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. Today, he is part of the medical group at Mosaic Family Care and conducts the only Adolescent Medicine practice in Northwest Missouri. He has been in practice 28 years.