Are planned absences taking too big a bite out of learning at the Haines School?

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, two veteran teachers expressed concerns about the number of days students miss class.

For elementary teacher Patty Brown, the issue hit home when a parent asked her about the district’s “extended absence program.” The district has no such program but Brown said this week the question exemplifies just how routine planned absences have become.

The ‘tradition’ of traveling extensively during the school year has been accepted by families, but it’s counterproductive to district goals and “verifiably impacts the progress of our school program,” Brown wrote in a letter to school board members last week.

Brown said she was referring to students taking a week or more of vacation or repeatedly taking trips that extend weekends or vacations.

For a few years, half the students in her fourth-grade class missed at least two weeks or more of classes for planned absences and some missed as many as six weeks, Brown said.

The district established a policy three years ago reducing staff workload for students’ extended trips, but that’s been lost on parents and new teachers, Brown said.

Combined with absences for student activities, doctor visits and illnesses, school years are being clipped as much as 15 percent. In high school, family trips combined with travel for school activities can take an even bigger bite, she said.

Brown submitted a list of 10 recommendations to the board, including changing the school calendar to accommodate such trips, encouraging and promoting attendance, establishing awards for attendance, requiring meetings with parents before extended trips and setting aside time after school to allow students to catch up.

In a brief interview this week, Brown said she also was concerned the district doesn’t convey to parents that such absences aren’t good for their children.

There’s increasing pressure on teachers to demonstrate student advancement through testing, which student absences make even more difficult, she said.

High school science teacher Mark Fontenot also spoke Tuesday, saying the number of student absences is the most difficult hurdle about teaching in Haines. It’s been an issue since he started here 23 years ago, he said.

“Over half my chemistry class and two other classes were gone for the last week… It’s hard. It’s very frustrating. And you do feel like you could be doing better by them. Their educational progress is affected,” Fontenot said.

A limited ferry schedule that leaves sports teams away for large blocks of time, and travel for middle school sports competitions also are pushing the issue, Fontenot and other teachers said this week.

But Fontenot cautioned that policy remedies might be “catastrophic,” triggering parents to homeschool or move elsewhere. “It’s the cost of doing business (here),” Fontenot said. Parents expect their children to be able to travel for sports and activities and they won’t give up family vacations, he said.

He agreed that increased testing requirements add pressure for teachers, but suggested it might be easier to change those than district policy on absences.

Linnus Danner has served as district art teacher since 1981. She said in an interview that school-year vacations have become more common in the past 10-15 years. Missing an art project isn’t as big a deal as trying to catch up on lessons in other subjects, she said.

“In other classes, it makes it hard. Students are missing out on being taught,” Danner said. Catching up absent students while teaching others also puts a burden on teachers, she said.

school board member Sarah Swinton said in an interview that students should be in school, but strict policiess would drive students away from the district. Extra-curricular activities benefit and motivate students, she said.

Swinton was skeptical the district could change travel trends and suggested efforts like attendance awards would hold little luster for students traveling with a team or on a family trip to Hawaii. “You can talk about (absences), but you can’t change it,” Swinton said.

School board members said Tuesday the issue might be a topic of an upcoming workshop.