Prince William County has adjusted its student absentee policies in the wake of changes to state law made earlier this year.
Superintendent Edward L. Kelly was a member of a task force that made recommendations to the General Assembly on attendance policies. The changes, which began this school year, will be spelled out for parents in letters mailed to students' homes or through the school's newsletter.
Among the modifications:
* Parents will be contacted after a child's first, fifth and any subsequent unexcused absences of the school year. The actions may include calling a parent, developing a plan to address the student's attendance problems, or filing a complaint against the student or parent for failure to comply.
* Students in grades kindergarten through 8 who miss 10 or more days of school and have done little or no makeup work may be held back a grade, even if the absences are excused. Older students, in grades 9 through 12, may fail the missed classes for the year. A physician's certification of absence can be an exception to the 10-day limit.
"This is something that's preferable, in terms of limiting the number of times a student can be absent before there are consequences," Kelly said.
The absentee policy also ensures that parents are informed right away when their children skip school, Kelly said. "The quicker you notify the parents, the quicker you can get something done before it goes too far down the line."
At the elementary school level, Principal Alison Nourse-Miller at Old Bridge Elementary said school staff already keeps close tabs on student attendance. When young children are missing class, it's usually an indicator of something more serious in the home, she said.
For older students, the policy will help those who aren't chronic truants, said Thomas Payne, principal of Fred Lynn Middle School. It'll also help get across the importance of regular school attendance, he said.
"Parents who take their kids out for these 'mental health days' don't realize how quickly that adds up," Payne said.
At Osbourn Park High School, Principal Timothy Healey said he also sees the value of the program for students who may skip classes once in a while. But Healey said he is concerned that putting the new rules into practice could mean more work for the school attendance officers and the court system.
"We haven't really clamped down on [absent students] as hard as the state wants us to do now," Healey said. Before the new policy, Osbourn Park would send a letter to parents after three and five unexcused absences and would work with parents of students with more serious attendance problems.
Attendance problems also need to be addressed in the home, as well as at school, Healey said.
"It has to start at home. Parents need to stress that being in school every day is important," he said.