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Advocates Push for Federal Paid Leave as Schools Reevaluate 'Perfect Attendance' Culture

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PAID SICK LEAVE - Why don’t Americans take sick time when they need it? Often, it’s because of pressures they first learned in school.

From the day their kids first start school, parents are pressured to ensure students don’t miss any days. While that might seem benign, urging a student to attend school while ill creates a culture that prioritizes “presenteeism” — a culture of showing up all the time, even when you’re in no shape to.

In a nation with no federal paid family and medical leave policy, this school culture mirrors the culture of many workplaces. Employers — prioritizing profit over people — run campaigns to encourage attendance and offer incentives for folks to show up no matter what they’re going through.

Some employers make it difficult to apply for leave or create a culture where leave requests are discouraged or denied. When students or employees are absent, little thought is given to why they’re absent, or how the school or company can support them during difficult times when they’re ill or caring for a loved one.


 

The unspoken rule is that you are never sick enough to warrant missing school or work. Students learn this early. When your child is fighting a health issue, school officials don’t send “get well soon” cards — they send forms and homework assignments.

By rewarding students for “perfect attendance” — for showing up every day, regardless of their condition or needs — schools reinforce that showing up is more important than their own health or their family’s needs. We send the message that work is what’s most important.

Another way schools mirror workplaces is that many schools require proof of illness. Students and their families must jump through hoops, collect doctor’s notes, and fill out the right forms to earn an “excused absence” and avoid truancy charges.

The result is a nation where too many of us can neither access nor afford to take time to care and heal. Another result is that parents, who lack access to paid sick days, are deterred from offering the same to their children.

It’s difficult to raise children who are in touch with their needs because so few places make space for them to care for themselves without judgment. It’s even harder when our leaders don’t show any care to the parents who keep our economy afloat. Because the United States is the only industrialized country without a federal paid and family leave program, taking time off can throw families into a financial spin that impacts everything from housing to putting food on the table.

America knows how to implement a paid family and medical leave program — we did so, briefly. during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the Family Values @ Work network we’re a part of has won paid family and medical leave policies in 14 states, including the District of Columbia. At the federal level, legislation like the FAMILY Act offers a way to advance paid leave nationally.

Our current compulsory schooling model was created to prepare children for factory work at the beginning of the Industrial Age. Over a century later, students are still taught to prioritize performance, to tick homework boxes, and to fulfill assignment quotas.

But in this age of interconnectedness, care transcends cold efficiency.

We need to dismantle this cruel conveyor belt and cultivate the fertile ground of care. It is time to redefine success in schools — not by the number of days students are present, but by the depth of care cultivated. Only then can we prepare our children to not only survive, but to thrive in a world yearning for care and humanity. 

(Safiya SimmonsLaura Collins, & Suzette Gardner are parents of young children and employees of Family Values @ Work, a network of grassroots coalitions working to win paid family and medical leave, and affordable, high-quality childcare. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.)

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