Battling truancy during COVID-19.

February 8, 2021

Battling truancy during COVID-19.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

OCEANA COUNTY — Chronic absenteeism in school almost always leads to low-performing — and often failing — students. In the era of COVID-19 with virtual or distant learning, educators are tasked with ensuring students who are learning from home are actually in “attendance.”

“We have not seen a rise in truancy with in-person students,” said Hart Public Schools Superintendent Mark Platt. “However, we have had issues with students who chose virtual. When they do not ‘log-in,’ they are marked absent. And if this number becomes problematic, they are treated as truant.

Platt has seen a trend in his district of more students returning to in-person instruction. “As a district, our numbers for in-person learners has always been significantly larger than the remote learners. At one point in August, our survey data indicated 38 percent were looking to be remote while 62 percent wanted in-person instruction. If the number was a bar graph it would have highs and lows, but there would be a trend. The trend would be more of our students are choosing to be in-person. As a district, 80 percent of our students are in person, with 20 percent being remote. At Spitler Elementary, the number is 85 percent in-person and 15 percent remote.

“There are several things we have done regarding this issue,” said Platt. “We have sent letters home, called home, made home visits, held parent meetings, and have allowed students to return (to in-person learning) even if it wasn’t at the end of a marking period. In the end, the issue of truancy is the same as in a normal year. You have to have parents participating in their child’s education. In this current year, we said from the beginning if you choose virtual, you are automatically making a higher level of commitment as a parent. Some have done a great job and some others have had or will have truancy charges filed against them.”

“Playing hooky” doesn’t seem to be prevalent at one grade level over another.

“Truancy at a grade level is generally not a prominent issue,” said Platt. “Most parents and most students do a really nice job at participating in the educational process. However, there are always some in each grade level who struggle with the responsibility. I have been in this business a long time and can tell you that sometimes it’s the student and sometimes it’s the parent. 

“The students, the parents, the staff have been wonderful. However, think back to when we were high schoolers — games, concerts, plays, girlfriends, boyfriends, hanging out, etc. A ton of that has been taken away from these kids — it’s just not fair and it can’t be replaced. When you are smack dab in the middle of winter, it can be hard on them to come to school. Now take away the things that matter to kids, and it’s just not the same. I give a lot of credit to the high school staff for their effort. They are keeping the culture very positive in the high school in the most difficult of times.”

What penalties does a student face if he/she misses too much school? What about the parents? 

“The sad part to this question is the student will always pay a higher price than the parent when it comes to truancy,” said Platt. “Sure the parent can end up in court, jail, fined or all the above. The student is robbed of an education, memories and often struggles with social-emotional health. The penalty the student faces far outweighs the penalty of the parent.”

Local law enforcement officers are always “great partners” with the truancy issue, said Platt.

At Hesperia Community Schools, truancy for virtual students has not been much of an issue with only 7 percent of the student population participating in online learning, said Superintendent Vaughn White. Reporting “normal attendance,” this school year, White added that “some of the virtual students are struggling to do the work.” If there is a problem with a student skipping school, the Newaygo County truancy officer contacts those who are not doing their work, he said. 

“It is an issue, and it has been an issue,” said Shelby Public Schools Superintendent Tim Reeves

Like Hart, Shelby has seen an increase in the number of students returning to in-person learning.

In the fall, roughly 25-30 percent of Shelby students were learning remotely. That percentage is expected to be come in at about 20 percent for February, he said

Reeves said truancy is more prevalent at the secondary level, which is grades 6-12.

“Teachers are calling home more often, trying to engage students in more Zoom meetings,” said Reeves. The teachers have taken a more persistent approach to combating truancy in the COVID world. “They’re continuing to try and try again. They’re spending more time and energy trying to engage the kids. They’re trying to work with the students as much as possible.

“Ultimately it could mean no credit, no grade, no pass,” said Reeves. “We don’t want that. We’re trying to take measures to avoid that.

As far as punishment goes, Reeves, said, “We’re trying to be reasonable with parents and trying to not inundate police.

“It’s just a challenge that comes with not having the students in the building every day,” he said.

Truancy in the COVID climate has not been much of an issue at Pentwater Public Schools.

“No, we really haven’t had much truancy at all with students being able to study remotely,” said Pentwater Superintendent Scott Karaptian.  

The K-12 district has an enrollment of 242, and 32 of those students are remote learners. 

The school currently has students appear in-person four days a week, and Wednesday is a remote learning day for everyone.

The remote Wednesday allows for the school to be cleaned and for teachers to catch up with remote learners, handle online group work, and work on professional development, Karaptian said.

Pentwater has encountered the problem of students who have chosen the face-to-face format who then try log in as virtual students.

If a student has an unexcused absence, it goes against their attendance. 

Karaptian said there is a Pentwater family that has been involved in remote learning from Florida for months, and it has been a successful situation.

Like Pentwater, another small Oceana school district has not seen an increase in truancy with online learning. “Truancy is not much of an issue,” said Walkerville Superintendent Thomas Langdon. “It’s kind of a non-issue.”

Although it fluctuates, in-person learning at Walkerville is approximately 25 percent, Langdon said. 

“Truancy is really hard to put your thumb on,” he said. “I don’t think it’s gotten worse.”

The school leader said distractions at home can be a problem for online learners. Most students do not have a private office to handle their online learning, so they often become distracted by other household members.

Lack of technology should not be a barrier for online learners, because the rural district provides students with devices — Chromebooks — and WiFi — Jetpacks to those who need them.

“The tech piece they have,” he said, but it’s the engagement part that can often lead to lower performance. 

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