Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.
Written by attorney Thomas B. Mooney.

Dear Legal Mailbag:

This is the time of the year when some parents at my school really tick me off. It seems like every other day I receive an email or a call from a parent “informing” me that he or she will be withdrawing his or her child from school for a week or more for a “family vacation,” usually someplace warm. These parents act like sending their children to school is a choice they make out of the goodness of their hearts. Haven’t these people heard about the mandatory attendance laws?

To make matters worse, some of these parents insist that their children’s teachers provide assignments that the students are supposed to do (but rarely if ever actually do) while on vacation. The teachers understandably share my irritation over the cavalier attitude these parents have and they are bugging me to do something.

I have been reading the new Ninth Edition of the Practical Guide to Connecticut School Law, and I understand that a student should be considered truant if he or she has four or more unexcused absences in a month. Can I lay down the law and tell these parents that we will consider absence for these family vacations unexcused, with the result that their children will be considered truants whom I should report to the authorities? I know that I will be picking a fight, but I am really sick of these parents and their presumption that they can take their children out of school whenever they want.

Thank you,
No Use for No Shows

Dear No Use:

You make some good points, but you should read more closely about excused and unexcused absences.  Only in extreme cases should you pick the fight because under current law, parents have the right to decide that the first nine absences in a year are excused.  Only after the parent has burned up those nine excused absences can you describe absences for family vacations as unexcused.

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-198b, passed in 2011, charged the State Board of Education with responsibility for defining “excused” and “unexcused absences” by July 1, 2012, for the purpose of school officials’ implementing Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-198a and reporting truancy in accordance with Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-220(c).  On June 27, 2012, the State Board of Education adopted “Definitions of Excused and Unexcused Absences,” as was required by Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-198b.  These definitions provide that the first nine absences in a school year may be considered excused when the parent/guardian approves the absence and submits appropriate documentation.

After the first nine absences, the tenth and any further absence must fall into one of the following categories to be excused:

  • student illness (note: once the nine parent-excused absences have occurred, all further student illness absences must be verified by an appropriately licensed medical professional to be deemed excused, regardless of the length of absence);
  • student’s observance of a religious holiday;
  • death in the student’s family or other emergency beyond the control of the student’s family;
  • mandated court appearances (additional documentation required);
  • the lack of transportation that is normally provided by a district other than the one the student attends (no parental documentation is required for this reason); or
  • extraordinary educational opportunities pre-approved by district administrators and in accordance with Connecticut State Department of Education guidance.

The last category is most relevant to your question, and absence for most family vacations will not qualify as “extraordinary educational opportunities” so as to be excused.  In April 2013, the Commissioner of Education issued Guidelines for Implementation of the Definitions of Excused and Unexcused Absences and Best Practices for Absence Prevention and Intervention.  As described in the Guidelines, the standards for an absence to constitute an “extraordinary educational opportunity” are quite high:

To qualify as an extraordinary educational opportunity, it must meet the following criteria:

a) The opportunity must be educational in nature. It must have a learning objective related to the student’s course work or plan of study. Not all memorable and/or life experiences would be considered educational and, therefore, would not be available for this exemption.
b) It must be an opportunity not ordinarily available to the student.
c) It must be grade and developmentally appropriate.
d) The content of the experience must be highly relevant to the student. While some opportunities will be relevant to all students, others will contain very specific content that would limit their relevance to a smaller group of students. For example, a trumpet lesson from jazz great Wynton Marsalis would be very relevant to students who play trumpet, but not to others who do not play trumpet.

Note: Criteria c) and d) above may mean that an exceptional educational opportunity exemption may be approved for one family member but not another attending the same event/opportunity. Some examples of extraordinary educational opportunities include:

• the opportunity to meet the president of the United States or a foreign head of state; or
• a behind the scenes tour of the Kennedy Space Center.

Some examples of activities that do not qualify as extraordinary educational opportunities include:

• family vacations; or
• going to a concert of a favorite pop star.

You will note that the Guidelines expressly state that family vacations, as such, should not be considered an “extraordinary educational opportunity.”

In summary, you can’t really threaten a truancy finding for the first nine days a student is absent.  Starting with the tenth day in a school year, however, you have every right to cite state statute and explain to the parents that you do not have a choice but to identify any further absences for a family vacation to be unexcused, with the result that their child may indeed be considered a truant once he or she has four or more unexcused absences in that month.