Under SB 1439, Virginia schools could help students see history as it occurs.

MARTINSVILLE – Should students be given an excused absence for working at or taking part in a political event? That’s a question Virginia schools may soon have to answer.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) introduced a bill in favor of just that. On Wednesday, SB 1439 passed the Virginia Senate by a 25-14 vote. It would allow any middle or high school student to participate in a civil or political event during the school day without the repercussions of an unexcused absence.

“School divisions [would] provide a day, an excused absence for participation in a civic event,” McClellan said.

The bill amends and reenacts 22.1-254 of the Code of Virginia, relating to the Department of Education and the guidelines on excused student absences relating to civic engagement.

The language of the bill gives discretion to the Department of Education to establish guidelines for the absence.

Within the parameters decided by the Department of Education, the bill allows school boards to permit one school day-long excused absence per school year for eligible grade level students engaging in a civic event.

The bill also gives local school boards the power to decide whether or not to allow more than one excused absence for civic engagements during the school year.

Local school boards may require that the student provide advance notice of the intended absence. They may also require students to provide documentation of their participation in the civic event.

Impacts on Virginia Schools

For some school systems, the bill might not have a large impact. On the Senate floor on Tuesday, McClellan noted that Fairfax County Public Schools already adopted a similar policy.

Representatives from FCPS did not return inquires about their excused absentee policy before press time on Wednesday.

For other school systems, like Henry County Public Schools, the bill could prompt changes.

Currently, excused absences for HCPS are different than in years past. That’s because of the pandemic.

“Certainly, the current year is different than most others and attendance is based on participation because of virtual learning constraints for some families,” said Monica Hatchett, director of communications.

In a normal year, excused absences included verified college visits or a health ailments verified with a doctor’s note.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Sign Up For Dogwood’s Newsletter

Active Learning

Adding an excused absence for civil or political events opened up learning opportunities outside of the classroom.

“Living history is always a good thing,” said Dr. Zeb Talley, Martinsville City Public Schools division superintendent. “And for students to actively participate [in] things like the election this [school] year, some things that are happening right now that have never happened before, I would support that.”

Hatchett expressed a similar sentiment from HCPS.

“We regularly encourage our students to express their ideas in appropriate manners as well as participate in the civic process,” Hatchett said. “Being an active citizen is an important part of what we want for our students as they leave HCPS and become adults.”

Currently offered to middle and high school students, the opportunity could provide practical applications to students’ in-class lessons.

“Students in middle and high school discuss civics and government extensively in their social studies classes and evaluate current events and speeches as well as writings in English and several other courses as well,” Hatchett said. “Observing our rights and responsibilities as citizens in action is a logical application of much of what they learn in their courses.”

Rather than solely reading the textbook, SB1439 would give students the opportunity to put their learning into action.

“It would give them a hands-on experience to get to see a civic function or a government function in person. They will be an active participant,” Talley said. “I think research will show that students do better with hands-on experiences.”

Opportunities for Virginia Schools

Talley noted that he would support the idea of an excused absence for a political or civic event. But he expressed concern over an extended leave that took students away from their in-class learning for too long.

“I would put a cap on the days because, you know, actual person-to-person instruction is important, but yes, I would support it with a certain amount cap to it,” Talley said. “And I would be agreeable to debate that or compromise on that. But yes, I think hands-on experiences for students are always good. It’s practical, right?”

The superintendent further discussed appropriate ways students might engage in the parameters of the potential excused absence.

“Things like government, actually experiencing a function of government. Actually looking at how a business operates. You know, in-person things that they could have a lived experience, where they could actually participate or do. Particularly government functions or civic functions, like voting or political things,” Talley said. “This would make what they’re reading in class come to life.”

Hatchett also noted the impact an opportunity like the one SB1439 presented could have on students long-term.  

“In addition to traditional opportunities to have legislators speak with a classroom of students, shadowing legislators, participating in campaign activities and participating in social movements, additional support for student civic activities may spur one of our young community members to leadership in important areas as either a civic servant or career role,” Hatchett said.

On Tuesday, the Senate engrossed and advanced the bill to a third reading.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com