Why you should care

Because not turning up is sometimes half the battle.

As the school year draws to a close and summer begins, it’s approaching that time of year when our schools’ most devoted pupils are rewarded for their unblemished attendance records. And it’s not just a slip of paper that students receive today. Perfect attendees at some schools, especially in the United States, are pulling down much bigger prizes, from iPads to bikes to brand-new cars (seriously).

But there’s a dark side to all this trumpeting of turnout. And for those of you with a child receiving a perfect attendance award at this year’s final school assembly, let me clue you in on a little secret: When those of us who are teachers and/or parents of imperfectly attending students watch your child pick up that award, we are not thinking, “Wow, Ashley is such a devoted student,” or “Boy, Harrison must have the immune system of an ox!” No, what we are really thinking as we pretend to applaud is: “That’s the runny-nosed ruffian that got me and my family sick all year long!”

It’s time schools did away with perfect attendance awards, from the gilded certificates to the flashy cars. By valorizing flawless attendance in schools, we are literally letting the perfect be the enemy of the good — good health.

Perfect attendance awards are … a community health hazard.

Every parent has been there. Susie’s been up all night coughing and battling a fever, but she seems to be getting better and the Children’s Tylenol appears to be working. So why not send the little trouper off to school? She’s not coughing up a lung, after all, and you just can’t afford to take the day off from work. “This clearly misunderstands the whole point of not wanting your child at school if he has fever,” writes pediatrician and blogger Justin Smith on Checkup Daily. “Not having fever is not the goal. Keeping your child away from others when they are sick is the goal.”

And yet millions of parents miss this goal every year — repeatedly — with the promise of a perfect attendance award providing some comfort and PR cover for questionable decision-making. There may be children among us who have titanic immune systems, but the vast majority are going to get sick … and be contagious. And, like any other sick kid, those students being taught to lean in will bring viruses, strep throat, pink eye and a host of other ailments to school — infecting teachers, staff members and other children, who will in turn carry the germs back to their homes and families. Perfect attendance awards are, in short, a community health hazard.

To be sure, you can’t learn if you aren’t there, and school attendance awards are generally well-intentioned, since attendance is vital to a child’s education and correlates highly with rates of graduation. And many low-income parents can’t afford to stay home from work with a sick child. It is also beneficial to a school’s funding, with many schools receiving a slew of monetary incentives from state and local governments to maintain high daily attendance rates.

Perfect attendance awards, however, don’t only help spread illness — they can send the wrong message to our children. For example, they send a particularly discouraging and stigmatizing message to children who suffer from chronic illness and medical challenges, those boys and girls who are physically unable to come to school every day. Overvaluing attendance also sends a misleading message to every child, one that becomes imprinted for the rest of their lives: namely, that being a good student or responsible employee is easy — you just need to show up. Alas, perfect attendance awards and participation trophies are few and far between once you leave school. It’s a hard truth, but nonetheless an important lesson that you can teach your child — perhaps the next time she is sick and needs to stay home from school.

OZYImmodest proposal

Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.