South Carolina lawmaker questioning truancy rules during flu outbreak

LANCASTER, S.C. — Mike Ward said it's a tough call sometimes whether to send his sick daughter to school.

“You have to make sure you're making the right call on it," Ward said. "We typically send her to school and tell her if it gets worse, have them give us a call and we'll go from there. It depends on the situation."

Ward understands why many parents send their children to school with sniffles and coughs. They don't want to miss school, especially if they've already been out for other illnesses during the same school year.

The flu season is getting worse in the Carolinas, even causing Carmel Christian School in Matthews to shut down for two days this week because 160 students were ill.

In Lancaster County, Democrat legislator Mandy Powers Norrell hopes to introduce a bill to ease the worries of parents concerned about truancy when it comes to missing school while sick.

"I started hearing from friends who had children with weakened immune systems. They were concerned about children around their kids, who were sick at school," she said. "I thought, as a legislator, I really need to look at this and see if our truancy laws need to be revamped to encourage parents of sick children to really keep their children at home."

The Lancaster School handbook addresses absences. After a student has 10 recorded parents notes or a combination of 10 parent and medical notes, a student will be required to turn in only medical notes.

School principal Steven Puckett said that it is a generous policy.

'We first want to partner with the families. We want to work with them, talk with them, see what we can do to help in that specific situation," Puckett said.

However, Powers Norrell said a child with a stomach bug could exceed the school's policy if they get sick again. Expanding it could keep more sick kids at home and protect those at school.

Similar to Lancaster, schools in Rock Hill allow three notes from parents per semester in high school and five in middle and elementary school before a doctor's note is required.

On Friday, Powers Norrell spoke to educators in Columbia about the issue and got their feedback. One idea she said is to tie truancy policy to times when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declares a pandemic.  That could allow schools to be more flexible and possibly expand the number of excused days allowed out of class.

There is also a concern for parents who can't afford to take their children to a doctor or who know that the doctor won't be able to help because the illness just has to run its course.

Puckett said the school district tries to be understanding about every child's situation and always encourages sick students to stay home.

"Of course the schools want you to keep your kid at home because we're trying to think of the safety of everyone," he said.

Powers Norrell hopes to introduce a bill on the issue during this session.