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How many days can a child miss? COVID complicates truancy

In 2019, Louisiana schools had a 28% statewide truancy rate— down significantly from 36.5% in 2018, according to LDOE data.

LAFAYETTE, La. — After learning her daughter, Cricket, had been exposed to COVID-19 at school, Sherrie Lindsey-Jones made sure to keep her home and her classmates safe. One day during their quarantine, Lindsey-Jones heard someone at their front door.

A truancy officer had paid them a visit.

Deputy Leha Odom with the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office left a notice, telling the Monroe mom to contact the truancy office. Failure to do so could result in a summons to appear in court.

The note set off alarms in Lindsey-Jones’ mind.

“It’s kind of quite embarrassing, people driving by and the sheriff’s department sitting in my front yard ringing my doorbell,” she said.

Lindsey-Jones said there was no easy way to access information about when to quarantine children from school and how long they should quarantine for. She had even called the school nurse, but a miscommunication led to her keeping Cricket home longer than required.

Now the mom was being investigated for something she thought she was doing correctly. She worried if she would be brought into court or sent to jail.

That’s not the mission of truancy officers, but many families do not understand the nature or goals of their work, said Sgt. Earl Henry with the Ouachita Parish Truancy Division.

“A lot of them think we’re out here just to punish them,” Henry said. “We’re not. Our primary goal is to figure out what’s causing the attendance issues. ... We just want to help get the kid back in school.”

Henry said truancy officers work to achieve this goal by checking in on families when they appear in the system as needing a referral. They also refer families to counseling agencies and other resources to help figure out how to best keep students in the classroom.

Over his 19 years working with the department, Henry said he’s worked with students for years, even generations within the same families.

But it’s not their job to determine who is truant. Since 2013, officers in Ouachita Parish have been working with an automated system called Webpams. Schools input their student tardies and absences. Once students hit a certain limit, officers are alerted to check on them, either via phone or in person.

However, if a school forgets to mark an absence as part of COVID quarantine or a parent keeps all their kids home from school instead of the one who was exposed to COVID, a family may get an unexpected visit from their local officer. Most referrals never result in a student being named truant.

“There’s a lot of confusion,” Henry said.

Lindsey-Jones isn’t alone. Families across the state face the same decision every time they learn their children have been exposed to COVID or that there’s a spike in cases in their community.

In 2019 Louisiana schools had a 28% statewide truancy rate, according to LDOE data. That figure is about the same as it was years earlier in 2015 and down significantly from 36.5% in 2018.

Truancy is defined as any student having either five unexcused days tardy or five unexcused days absent within a school semester, according to an LDOE spokesperson. The truancy rate is the percentage of students that are truant at a site over a given year.

Ouachita Parish’s rate was slightly higher than the state’s at 30.8% in 2019, according to state data. Over the course of the pandemic, student referrals for officer checkups in the parish have increased. During the 2018-19 school year, referrals amounted to 7,278, Henry said.

No total was calculated for the 2019-20 school year because officers filled in deputy rolls in light of the pandemic. Yet, for the 2020-21 school year, there were 7,749 referrals.

Before the Webpams system, referrals only ever amounted to 3,000 to 5,000 per year, Henry said.

Families are tasked with keeping up with quarantine guidelines, which have shifted throughout the pandemic in response to COVID surges and a mission to keep kids from missing too much in-person instruction.

KEEPING STUDENTS IN SCHOOL HELPS AVOID A NEED TO CATCH UP LATER

Attendance is one of the focus areas of the state Department of Education’s Louisiana Comeback, a coordinated effort to recover and accelerate learning due to the previous year’s challenges.

Like other districts and LDOE, the Lafayette Parish School System is focusing on truancy as one way to address learning gaps this year.

“We cannot communicate enough the importance of regular school attendance — as it is critical to a student’s success,” reads an LPSS release. “It is imperative that students attend school regularly in order to not fall further behind. The cumulative impact of frequent absences beginning in elementary school significantly increases the likelihood of a child becoming a high school dropout.”

Lafayette welcomed a new director of child welfare and attendance this fall, and he works with three hearing officers and four truancy officers, two of whom were added to the department this year. The office is responsible for designing and implementing effective interventions in attendance, discipline and dropout prevention.

The hearing officers work closely with social workers to deal with discipline-related issues that could result in suspensions and expulsions.

“We must remain focused on making decisions that impact our students in the most positive way,” Superintendent Irma D. Trosclair said in a release. “Having a strategic approach to academic recovery and acceleration may deter any potential impacts disproportionately affecting our students’ educational careers. This is a major responsibility on the part of all adults who play a role in the lives of students.”

Rapides Parish was making “limited headway” in battling truancy before the pandemic, and then COVID-19 complicated things further, 9th Judicial District Judge John Davidson said.

Dasha Roberts is the Central Louisiana parish’s director of Families In Need of Services (FINS), “the arm of the juvenile court,” as Davidson described it.

Part of Roberts’ job is to visit students’ homes when they fail to attend truancy meetings. She might find indifferent parents, those who truly need help or students who are gaming the system set up combat COVID-19.

The push last year for parental choice in deciding how to quarantine students offered an inadvertent loophole, she said. They merely say they have the virus or were exposed to it.

Jessie Price, the juvenile court coordinator and liaison from the Rapides Parish District Attorney’s Office, said some kids have sought a switch to virtual schooling as a way to stay out of schools.

“They found their way out,” she said.

Clifton Spears, the juvenile prosecutor in the DA’s office who also works with the group, said about 1,200 Rapides students are truant “on any given day.”

And that doesn’t count kids who never enrolled in classes, transferred or dropped out, he said.

“We don’t know how many of those there are,” Spears said.

He works to find solutions for the students and parents open to help. Those who refuse can be turned over to the custody of juvenile justice officials.

Spears said most who get hauled into the court straighten up when they realize truancy is a problem. For a large number of children, he said parents are the problem.

He said he has a “steadfast general rule” about truancy: If a child is younger than 10, it’s a parental issue. From ages 12 to 14, it’s a toss-up. But for truants older than 14, that’s their problem.

Destiny Fatula, the Rapides coordinator of the My Community Cares program, said some families truly lack support and aren’t in a good place. Add pandemic-related on top of that, and it amplifies whatever problems already were there, she said.

Some students would like to be in school, but the pandemic has forced hard choices, said Roberts.

Economic stimulus payments sent to people to help with financial hardships are gone now. She said she has teens in some of her cases at home watching younger siblings because their parents can’t afford child care.

Davidson said Roberts, Price and Fatula are able to do more to help than either he or Spears as a judge and prosecutor, respectively.

It’s important to learn about families’ needs instead of telling them what they need, said Fatula. Establishing trust is key, she said.

The objective is to keep kids in school, said Davidson, but they only go where they’re invited.

“If we can keep our kids in their (educators’) hands, we’re gonna be OK in Rapides Parish,” Davison said. “If they get in our hands, not so much.”

All momentum the group had built crashed with the pandemic, he said. It remains a challenge still.

“I’m afraid we may have lost a generation of students,” said Davidson. “A lot of the students we deal with, they struggle with basic skills, and I don’t know how you take a year or two off and continue to polish those skills.”