Pritzker mental health bill to acknowledge student attendance starting next semester

Isabella Ferak, Staff Writer

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker passed legislation in August to allow Illinois students to take five mental health days off from school.

The bill, officially known as SB1557, classifies mental and behavioral health issues as legitimate reasons for school absence due to illness. Beginning January 2022, students missing school due to their mental or behavioral health will be granted up to five days of absences without required proof of a doctor’s note. 

Students will be given opportunities to make up missed school work during their mental or behavioral health absence. After the second absence, they may be referred to the appropriate school personnel for counseling or other assistance. Naperville North Assistant Principal Jessica Freed detailed exactly which personnel a student may be sent to.

“We have counselors, social workers, psychs– every single kid has a team made up of those people, and a dean, to work together in whatever it is that they need, so there’s building-based resources for students,” Freed said. “If families or students are looking for more long term social-emotional or mental health support, we do have community resources that we have partnered with from a district level that help support students.”

The Naperville North student services department has not yet discussed how they will respond in terms of absences, according to a statement from Freed in an email. Despite that, when the bill takes effect at the beginning of second semester, counselor Molly Murray believes it will benefit students. 

“For those students that I know… [mental health days] help them catch up, and that can really help their psyche for finishing the rest of the week, or just [help catch up on] some needed rest. I’ve personally seen some benefits on a more individual basis,” Murray said.

If a student does miss school, they will likely still have to complete assignments from the day. Class topics may also be harder to grasp after missing a day of instruction. Fortunately, multiple academic help resources are available at Naperville North, ranging from before-school review and peer tutoring to after-school Huskie Tutoring sessions.

Erin McCafferty, a sophomore at North, agrees with Murray. She explained that students can use their “recharge day” as a way to catch up on overwhelming school work.

“I know I want to do well in school, but when I’m sitting there and I can’t focus because I’m stressing out because I have so much work to do… it kind of piles up, and then I’m not doing well because I’m so stressed. For me, and definitely a lot of people I know, I think this is definitely going to be a really good and helpful thing,” McCafferty said.

A student-conducted survey in early 2020 regarding student opinion on mental health resources at Naperville North found staggering results: Nearly 71% of surveyed students claimed that North only somewhat does enough to recognize mental health on a yearly basis. Alex Ayoub, a junior at North, believes that the bill will help North turn over a new leaf. 

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction; the government and our school are finally starting to view mental health as seriously as physical health. There definitely could always be room for improvement… five excused days for mental health is a really good place to start,” Ayoub said.

After the return to school from winter break, the bill will finally become a reality for Illinois students. Exactly how Naperville North will respond is still unclear. As for now, McCafferty, Ayoub and many students struggling with mental health issues rejoice that the resources they need are becoming more easily accessible.

“Instead of being like, ‘We need a doctor’s note, and it’s a secretive thing,’ we’re starting to normalize ‘I’m really drained, I need this day off just to recharge, and I’ll be back in tomorrow,’ so it’s not this strange, private thing anymore,” McCafferty said.