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Lawmakers advance bills on school absences for a 'mental health day'

Posted at 4:02 PM, Jan 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-29 19:26:59-05

SALT LAKE CITY — The House Education Committee unanimously approved bills that allow students to take a "mental health day" if needed, as well as no longer requiring parents to get a doctor's note to count as a valid absence.

Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, ran House Bill 116 after racking up $1,000 in medical bills thanks to high-deductibles when he tried to get doctor's notes for each of his children when they came down with strep throat. The school district required it.

His legislation removes the requirement that parents need to get a doctor's note in order to have a valid absence.

"In particular, this hurts those most vulnerable. Those who have less access to medical care, those who have high expenses for medical care," Rep. Robertson said Friday.

What Rep. Robertson found is different school districts across Utah apply have different requirements when it comes to doctor's notes. He said he would not prohibit teachers or principals from inquiring why a student is absent, as they can often be more lenient with a student if it's for a legitimate medical need.

Members of the committee at first expressed concern about the bill, but came around to supporting it.

"If you have to go to a doctor and you don’t have health insurance and you don’t have a primary care doctor, what a burden that is," said Rep. Elizabeth Weight, D-West Valley City.

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, said her family didn't have medical insurance for a time, and the stress of trying to get a doctor's note for a sick child can be a burden.

"I truly think this bill is in the best interests of our children and the families in our state, so thank you," she told him.

HB116 now goes to the full House of Representatives for a vote.

Rep. Mike Winder, R-West Valley City, passed House Bill 81, that allows students to claim a "mental health day" as a valid absence from school.

"This sends a loud message that mental health is as important as physical health and both are legitimately excused absences when needed," he told FOX 13 on Friday.

The bill had support from both the Granite School District and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill's Utah chapter.

"I think with the pandemic, this bill is more important than ever," Rep. Winder said. "And realize, a parent still needs to excuse them. A kid just can’t excuse themselves for mental health. They still have the work to do. It doesn’t get you out of that test or that assignment. But sometimes, you just need a breather because you’re at a breaking point."

HB81 also goes to the full House for a vote next week.