TAMPA — Hillsborough County students with perfect attendance likely won't be able to skip semester exams this year.
Blame the swine flu.
The School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to continue its suspension of the incentive program in order to prevent students from coming to school sick.
"We do not want to put our families in a situation where students are going to make, perhaps, unsafe decisions to come to school because they're concerned about an exam," said Wynne Tye, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
Under the district's policy, students with perfect attendance had been able to skip up to seven of their semester exams each year. Those with just a few absences could skip one or two per semester. To qualify, students needed to be in good academic standing, with at least a "C" average and no significant discipline issues, Tye said.
Last May, with confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus popping up across the Tampa Bay area, the district put the popular program on hold.
Now, with four confirmed deaths attributed to the virus in Hillsborough and another in Pinellas announced Monday, officials said it was prudent to continue that suspension. It affects middle and high school students.
Under a Pinellas County policy, students can skip an exam if they have earned a course grade of A or B and haven't missed more than nine days of school.
"If an extenuating circumstance (such as swine flu) causes them to no longer meet the attendance criteria, they may apply for a waiver," said spokeswoman Andrea Zahn.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has "highly recommended" that those with flu-like symptoms stay home and avoid contact with others, and district officials said they were following that advice.
Hillsborough board members expressed some initial reluctance to extend the suspension with only two weeks to go before the start of school. Students this year must also take exams after the winter holiday because of state-mandated restrictions on the school calendar, said April Griffin.
Several members held out hope that a board subcommittee could quickly craft an alternative policy that would allow students another way to earn a test exemption.
"Maybe it's the GPA, maybe it's something else, that you have earned the right to exempt an exam," suggested Susan Valdes.
Member Candy Olson said she has long supported the policy as a way of encouraging good attendance, but she said a year without test exemptions might be instructive.
"It will not kill a student to take all of his or her exams," she said.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said the upcoming flu season could hit schools particularly hard, and it made sense to not rush a new policy into place.
"I can tell you, I can't guarantee before school we'll have something," she said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.