All public school students in Illinois age 7 and above now have the right to take up to five mental health days without penalty each school year. The law passed the Illinois General Assembly last year without a single dissenting vote. 

The new law comes at a time when there is increasing concern about the mental health of children, adolescents and teenagers and the stress that they are under due to the unpredictability and turmoil wrought on education by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

State Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) said lawmakers have developed a greater understanding of importance of mental and behavioral health in recent years, saying mental health is as important as physical health. 

The mental health of students has become a major concern especially during the COVID pandemic, which has isolated students during times of remote learning.

“I think remote learning during COVID really had an effect on their anxiety levels, at least my kids, and to the extent that you can assuage that, and use every available asset to make sure that they’re achieving good things, I’m all for it,” said Zalewski, a father of four children. “I think it’s a really good law.”

Riverside-Brookfield High School senior Claire Harrison said that she thought the new law will help students who sometimes feel overwhelmed, especially when dealing with college applications and other stresses. 

“I think it’s a really good policy,” Harrison said at a recent school board meeting where she serves a student representative to the District 208 Board of Education. “I know a lot of students take mental health days under other guises.”

The law, which was initially introduced by Sen. Richard Martwick (D-Norridge) in the state Senate and by Rep. Lindsey LaPointe (D-Chicago) in the House, states that a student taking a mental health day need not provide the school with any sort of medical note to justify the absence. 

It also mandates that the student be allowed to make up any work missed as a result of taking a mental health day. The bill states that after a student takes a second mental health day, the student may be referred to “appropriate school support personnel.” Riverside-Brookfield High School will take advantage of that provision.

“The student will be permitted to make up any work, and once the student is called out for a second mental health day our student services team, our counselors, social workers, will engage that family to check on them, to make sure that they’re doing well and to connect them with the right resources,” said RBHS Principal Hector Freytas at the Dec. 14 school board meeting.

Freytas also said that a student taking a mental health day will not be allowed to take part in any extracurricular activity on that day, whether it be a club or a sport. He also recommended that mental health days not be taken during standardized testing days.

In Lyons-Brookfield School District 103, which serves the southeast quarter of Brookfield, Superintendent Kristopher Rivera is encouraging parents who are concerned about sending their children to school during the COVID-19 omicron variant surge to take advantage of the mental health days. 

On Jan. 4, Rivera sent a letter to District 103 parents notifying them of the new law and telling parents who are concerned about sending their kids to school to have them take mental health days.

While the law excuses students who miss work during those absences, Rivera in his letter “strongly encouraged” students to keep up and submit assignments.

With respect to students who may be too young to be covered by the new law, Rivera wrote in his letter to parents that “for students not eligible due to the age restriction listed above, I will allow those absences to be excused.”