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Need a mental health day? It would be an excused school absence if this bill passes

First grade teacher Jamie Greenwood looks at a large sheet of clear plastic that hangs from the ceiling in her classroom at Westvale Elementary School in West Jordan on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Greenwood will stand behind the plastic when she teaches her class. The Jordan Board of Education will appropriate $500 to each classroom teacher for personal protective equipment and supplies. Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Mental health days would be excused absences from Utah schools under a bill endorsed by a legislative committee Friday.

The House Education Committee voted unanimously to send HB81 to the House of Representatives for further consideration.

Other states that have made this allowance have experienced a reduction in youth suicide, according to HB81’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City.

“Here in the state of Utah, where we’re at sixth in the nation for youth suicides, anything we can do to save a life is important, especially in this pandemic where our kids are under pressure unlike ever before,” Winder said.

He said the bill is supported by the Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Utah School Counselor Association and the Libertas Institute.

Some committee members questioned why a change is needed after state lawmakers added mental illness as an excused absence from school three years ago.

“Some people, many people, have mental illnesses, but not all people. But we all have mental health don’t we, just like we all have physical health. It’s important that we maintain our physical health from hitting the breaking point just like it’s important we maintain our mental health from hitting the breaking point,” Winder said.

Winder’s daughter, Jessica Lee, spoke in support of the bill.

“Sometimes things might happen in life and it all gets bumpy for everyone, where our mental health might decrease and we might need to, you know, take a day to cope and to deal with that in a healthy way,” said Lee, who is a youth advocacy chairwoman for Utah’s NAMI and works at a behavioral health center as a technician.

“We all face failure, rejection. Many have faced death of loved ones or other things that would necessitate this, even if they didn’t have a diagnosed mental illness or a mental health condition.”

In a related matter, the committee also approved HB116, which would do away with a public school requiring students to produce notes from a medical professional when they are absent due to injury or illness, physical or mental.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, said such requirements place onerous burdens on families, particularly those that do not have insurance or access to health care providers.

School districts and charter schools have policies on school absences. Some do not require health care provider notes, but Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, a retired schoolteacher, said notes can help ensure that an ill or injured student gets sufficient time to complete missed schoolwork.

Robertson said HB116 is also a nod to parental rights.

“I think it puts the parental role of giving excused absences enshrined where it should be and it also prevents inadvertently hurting those who are most vulnerable, where this would be a huge financial impact to their families,” Robertson said.

Moss said, unfortunately, “there will always be some that will take advantage of this.”

When she taught high school, students would tell her that their families were leaving the state for vacation and ask, “Can I have the work for the next two weeks?”

That’s a different situation than working to accommodate a student who is ill or injured, she said. “You certainly feel more sympathy and are willing to spend time with a student helping them when they’ve been sick.”

But Moss agreed that such a requirement would be difficult for people who are medically uninsured, do not have a primary health care provider or for working parents.

Rep. Dan Johnson, R-Logan, also a retired educator and administrator, said he did not recall a single instance in his career when a note was required.

Ideally, school secretaries, administrators and teachers cultivate relationships with parents so they know what is going on with students at their school, he said.

“Honestly, I don’t think in 50 years I ever had someone have to bring a note from a doctor because we were way ahead of a note from the doctor,” Johnson said.

Ben Horsley, communications director for the Granite School District, said the bill “codifies existing practice in many school districts to accept that as a valid excuse for absence.”

Hopefully it will bring “normalization to the fact that we all need a little bit of time every once in a while.”