Learning Curve: Are they sick or tired?

When my daughter rose last year to accept the third-grade perfect attendance award, my husband and I looked at each other in surprise.

We weren’t aware that she hadn’t missed a day that year for illness. (Forgive us — with four kids, it’s sometimes hard to keep track.) And while I congratulated her, I tried not to make a big fuss. I’ve never been a fan of perfect attendance awards, coming down on the side of critics who contend that such public tributes encourage students to show up at school sick.

But in May, my daughter told me that she was determined to stay healthy because she was just two weeks away from again snagging the perfect attendance award. I was even more surprised when her twin brother piped up, lamenting that his one sick day disqualified him.

Somehow, this award has become important to them, in part because it’s presented at a schoolwide assembly and in part because so few kids earn it.

I tried to make my twins understand that while they ought to be happy to be healthy, there’s no shame in missing a day of class because they are not well.

In fact, as President Barack Obama noted in his speech last week to schoolchildren, children should stay home when they’re ill, especially given the dangers of the H1N1 virus, better known as swine flu.

“Stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter,” Obama said.

“As the mother of two young children, I am astounded by the number of parents who send their children to school when they are sick,” says DeKalb parent Dori Kleber. “Even more unbelievable to me is that schools continue to encourage this irresponsible behavior by giving out awards for perfect attendance.”

Obama’s plea, Kleber says, “was a throwaway line, far overshadowed by his larger message, but worth noting in light of the current flu pandemic.”

She cites a 2004 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research that found the average child misses four days of school per year for health reasons.

While Kleber says there may be the odd child who never so much as catches a cold, she believes that promoting perfect attendance fosters children coming to school sick.

The media are often complicit in encouraging perfect attendance, producing sunny stories about the high school graduate who never missed a single day.

One recent story described a motivated young woman from Atlanta who never missed a school day in 13 years. The girl’s mother admitted that to achieve that remarkable record, she had to send her daughter to school even when she wasn’t feeling well, going so far as to come to school to sit with her ailing child to make her feel better and to feed her medications.

On one hand, you have to admire a mother who so valued education that she would not let her child miss a day. But you have to wonder how many children and teachers ended up sick as a result.

A lot of parents don’t deliberately send sick children to school. But it’s easy to see how a working parent without another child care option could choose to overlook signs of sickness. The child’s complaints of a stomach ache may be only gas. Lethargy could be the aftereffect of a grueling soccer practice.

With those rationalizations, parents send their children off to school with Tylenol and crossed fingers.

“Many sick children who are in school are there because their parents have no other option for child care, and they work in jobs that have no paid sick leave,” says Kleber. “That is a much larger policy issue that will be difficult for society to solve, but to me, taking away an award that basically encourages kids to show up even when they’re sick would be a pretty simple step in the right direction.”

It can be a challenge to distinguish the truly ill from the merely tired, especially once students reach adolescence.

In his senior year, my teenager complained at least once a month that he was under the weather when the truth was he had stayed up too late working on his various musical projects. I would come home from work, expecting to see him under the covers, only to find him full of vim and vigor and wondering if he could have $10 for a burrito.

Teachers tell me that it’s not unusual for high school students in particular to feel faint on the day a term paper is due or a quiz is scheduled. In that respect, there’s merit to honoring the students who show up for school even after a basketball game that went into overtime or after the play practice that ran late.

I am just unsure how to honor such diligence without inflating the merits of perfect attendance. Kleber thinks the health stakes are too high to promote perfect attendance awards in any form.

Schools should put an end to perfect attendance programs, she says, “and send a clear message to parents and students that a sick child’s place is at home, not in the classroom.”