Pandemic-related learning disruptions have wreaked havoc on children’s well-being, with symptoms of mental and behavioral disorders steadily rising over the course of the last two years. Now, some states are embracing a new remedy: allowing students to take time off from school to cope with mental health problems.

The approach has been championed by students and some clinicians who argue that anxious or depressed kids can’t focus in the classroom, according to a report by The 74. But others wonder if extra time away from school is the right answer, especially given the potential harm to academic and social development.

The idea of “mental health days,” which started catching on even before the pandemic began, has already been enacted in nine states. Lawmakers in several others, including Kentucky and Maryland, are considering similar proposals.

Some educators and therapists have signaled their approval, arguing that the freedom to stay home from classes could allow kids to restore their energy and come back ready to learn. But other experts warn that absence from an academic setting may not be a useful tool to address the issues facing troubled young people. The prospect of time off might also prod some students to miss class who otherwise wouldn’t.

The push for student mental health days began in 2019, when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a bill expanding the state’s category of excused absences to include those related to mental as well as physical health. The reform was drafted by a group of high schoolers known as Students for a Healthy Oregon, which recommended it as a salve for the long-running deterioration in teen mental health that has become undeniable in school districts around the country.

An economist studying absenteeism at the University of Pennsylvania has said it’s likely that some families are already keeping their children home multiple days each year as a result of emotional issues they experience at school. Adopting an Oregon-style policy — a few states have specified the number of absences students can take, while others simply direct districts to accept mental health as a valid reason to be absent — wouldn’t necessarily change the behavior of those families, but it could prevent them from being thrust into state truancy systems.

But while the evidence of the pandemic’s harmful effects on child well-being is clear, some experts wonder, if the harms are due to the disruption of school, why would the answer be to offer students more time away?

Now that several large states are implementing K-12 mental health days, experts will be able to gather data on that very question, as well as whether mental health days are effective in reducing academic and interpersonal stress. They’ll also learn more about their effect on school attendance and whether they induce more students to miss time in school.

One thing already known is that the switch to online learning proved disastrous for efforts to improve attendance, particularly among disadvantaged or low-performing students. In fact, California data shows chronic absenteeism surging as much as 200%, with Black, Hispanic, disabled and English learner students disproportionately missing school over the last year.