Local News

Truancy is a stubborn problem as the pandemic stretches on

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

One year after Covid-19 first shuttered Vermont’s schools, many kids still aren’t showing up to class.

Attendance has been a struggle since the very beginning of the pandemic. And many educators have gotten creative, often knocking on doors to bring help, supplies or food when kids stop showing up in class or on Zoom.

“We are relentless,” said Amanda Spencer, a middle school counselor in the Winooski school district. “If a kid doesn’t show up, the adviser is calling. The registrar is calling. I am showing up on the doorstep. The principal is bringing doughnuts to the family. We sort of hit from all angles.”

It’s unknown at this point what the true scope of the problem is in Vermont. At the end of the year, the Agency of Education collects annual data about chronic absenteeism for the federal EdFacts Initiative, said Ted Fisher, the agency’s spokesperson. But that data likely won’t be publicly available until next fall, according to Fisher, and state officials haven’t conducted any special data collections around the pandemic and truancy.

Chronic absenteeism has been a consistent problem “everywhere” in Vermont since the start of the crisis, said Jay Nichols, the Vermont Principals Association executive director. Engagement has improved from the chaos of the spring shutdown of last year, he said, but has remained problematic for a core group of students in each district since the fall.

“I have no idea what the number is. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a thousand kids. A few kids in every town — that adds up,” he said.

Schools have been toggling back and forth between in-person and remote learning all year. And while educators say absenteeism is worse during remote learning, they also frequently say it is during the transition between virtual and face-to-face learning that many kids fall off the map.

At Richford Junior Senior High School, Principal Beth O’Brien said many kids fall behind on remote days and then fail to show up when it’s time to be back in the classroom.

“It’s almost like it’s preventing them from coming in because they have such great anxiety, knowing that they’re behind, and they don’t want to come in and face that,” she said.

To help, the school is offering students who are struggling extra in-person help on remote days and also doing direct outreach to families to see if they need anything.

As with so many other societal problems and Covid-19, school officials say truancy is largely an old problem made worse by the present crisis.

“Truancy is a perennial challenge that’s been exacerbated this year by the pandemic,” said Greg Schillinger, the principal at Rutland High School, where 9th-graders are in-person full-time and students in grades 10-12 are attending class on a hybrid schedule.

When students stop showing up, whether in-person or online, Schillinger said the school tries to counter with direct outreach from a counselor, a teacher or a coach. Guidance counselors are currently setting up appointments with each and every student to talk about the future, he said. And the school’s football coach is calling every player every six to eight weeks just to check in.

“We have found that relationships are the key,” he said.

At North Country Union High School, where most students attend school in-person two days a week, school officials have started scheduling a third day of face-to-face learning every Wednesday for kids who consistently don’t show up. “It’s a student-by-student win. I wish I could say it was a magic wand for all of them, but it isn’t,” said Chris Young, the school’s principal.

North Country has also created a credit-recovery program for students who are falling behind. And students who don’t consistently show up get letters home, calls, and eventually, a knock on the door from a counselor or the school resource officer. All told, Young estimates that half of the 50 or so students who were chronically absent at the start of the year are re-engaging with some consistency.

As for the other half, Young said he’ll keep trying. Like many of his peers, he noted that truancy is not a new phenomenon and that the same students who were at-risk before the pandemic are the same students who are at-risk now.

He said internet access remains a problem, but the students disengaging from class are most often those dealing with dysfunction at home or working to help their families make ends meet.

“I’m very worried about them. But I was worried about them before school was closed,” Young said.

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