Top photo by Tamir Kalifa for HuffPost
Hayden, 12, had been having panic attacks about school even before a letter arrived at his home last month, threatening legal action for his alleged absences from distance learning.
The sixth-grader has been attending online class from his home outside Austin, Texas, since August, and having difficulties adjusting. When his grades dropped, he started having intense bouts of anxiety, working himself up until he cried so hard he could barely catch his breath. He wailed that he hated himself and wished he could do better in school.
When the letter arrived from Round Rock School District in November, saying that legal charges punishable by fines or court action could be brought against his mother for his absences, Hayden spiraled into a dayslong episode, says his mother Holly Barentine. He started crying even before they finished reading the letter, disclosing fears about worst-case scenarios that he would fail his classes. When he went to stay the night at his dad’s house, the crying continued. His father emailed Barentine, expressing concern for their son’s well-being.
Hayden, a sixth-grader, hadn’t actually been missing online school. However, his school district only counts kids present in some classes if they both show up and submit their homework for the day. Some of Hayden’s homework hadn’t been reaching his teachers due to apparent technological glitches on the school’s online platform, or in some cases because he hadn’t handed it in ― an oversight he didn’t expect to be met with potential legal action.
Around the country, school districts are subject to state truancy laws and regulations. However, as the coronavirus pandemic has turned schools upside down and put most learning online, some of these rules are bumping against new realities involving technology gaps or a lack of parental supervision. Amid a global health crisis, threats like the one Round Rock sent to Barentine strike her as particularly archaic.
Barentine immediately emailed her son’s school upon receiving the letter.
“I have received a truancy notification for my son, who has been having extreme technical issues,” she wrote to administrators. “I have met with his teachers and gone over this, and I think it’s highly inappropriate to be sending out these notices to anyone during a pandemic, when we’re all doing the best we can.”
In recent years, truancy policies have started shifting away from punitive measures to providing more support for students who are chronically absent. Most states have some sort of truancy laws on the books, but only about half still have policies punishing truancy with potential penal measures, according to the national policy group Education Commission of the States.
Where Barentine lives in Texas, the law changed several years ago so kids would no longer face potential criminal sanctions for truancy, instead putting in place school-level prevention programs. Students who are 12 and older may still get referred to truancy court, and parents found to have contributed to nonattendance can face fines and charges. In other states, like Alabama, parents who contribute to a child’s truancy “may also be sentenced to hard labor for the county for not more than 90 days.”
During a pandemic, when there’s no uniform way of counting attendance, Hedy Chang, director of the advocacy group Attendance Works, has seen districts rethinking some of these rules, with their ability to do so varying on state flexibility.
“Threatening families with court isn’t what allows you to unpack what’s going on or come up with solutions, and I think this was true before the pandemic, and the pandemic, as with many situations, has made it even more clear,” said Chang.
Round Rock spokesperson Jenny LaCoste-Caputo acknowledged the difficulties of following these policies during remote learning, noting that technological problems can sometimes erroneously show when an assignment was turned in. She said the district is closely following guidance issued by the Texas Education Agency, which says that teachers leading asynchronous classes can use the completion of daily assignments as a measure of attendance. In synchronous classes, it is enough for a student to be present.
The letter Barentine received from her son’s school said that he had 10 unexcused absences and that it may be necessary to proceed with legal action against her and to refer her son to truancy court.
“If you, with criminal negligence, fail to require the child to attend school as required by law, legal charges can be brought against YOU for Parent Contributing to Nonattendance,” says the letter, noting that “conviction of this offense is a Misdemeanor punishable by fines ranging from $100.00 for first offense up to $500.00 for each additional offense.”
After HuffPost contacted the district, LaCoste-Caputo said it would reword the automatically generated truancy letters to be more “solution and intervention-oriented.”
“We do understand that the current wording of the warning letter is in need of updating given our current climate,” LaCoste-Caputo wrote. “This environment presents a very real challenge on all sides, but we also must identify students who are not engaging in school virtually so we can do all we can to support them and bring them back.”
Barentine is now considering pulling Hayden and his older brother, an eighth-grader, out of school to enroll in a virtual program. She figures it would come with some of the same challenges, but with fewer technology issues and fewer legal threats. She’s still exploring this option ― she emailed the kids’ school for information on the withdrawal process, but they’re first going to finish the semester and then evaluate their options later this month.
Hayden, typically an A or B student, has had difficulty making the transition from elementary school to middle school online. He was never a frequent user of computers, instead playing video games on a handheld device, and has found adjusting to the school’s online learning platform challenging. It sometimes takes him hours to type assignments.
There have been more than a handful of instances, too, when technology simply failed him. Barentine recalls sitting next to him, watching him submit homework via the Schoology learning management platform used by the district, that the teacher never received. (Hayden has started directly emailing some of his assignments to teachers out of frustration.)
Barentine’s older son, more fluent in technology, has had an easier time making the adjustment, though sometimes his completed assignments don’t reach teachers, either.
“There have definitely been issues to work through with the platform but we are happy with the support Schoology has provided,” said LaCoste-Caputo.
Barentine, a single mother, hasn’t been around as much as she would like to help to coach Hayden through his difficulties. Her job as an escrow officer for a title company requires her to go into the office in person, leaving her two sons to work independently during most of the day. The office is only about 10 minutes away from their home, and she regularly drops in unannounced.
She’s been surprised at how well her children seem to be handling their new independence. They load the dishwasher and take out the trash before she gets home. Her eldest has started occasionally making his own lunch. They seem to be staying focused, even without supervision, she said.
Still, staying on top of her kids’ learning this year feels like a full-time job in itself, more work than previous stints on the school PTA. She’s started checking in every day with all her sons’ teachers. They all individually send weekly updates ― 14 different emails, all containing potentially vital information.
There’s also the issue of her son’s well-being. Hayden has always had anxiety and has been seeing a therapist about it. But in the past his anxiety was rarely focused around school, where he did well. Now he calls his mom in a panic after their internet cuts out and he gets bumped from class, afraid he will get marked absent.
“It’s sad to see your kid passing with flying colors to failing everything,” says Barentine. “He’s already trying his best and not doing well because of everything. Then to hear you might have to fail or get kicked out or go to court.”
The district has referred 22 truancy cases to court this school year, a number LaCoste-Caputo says is significantly down from the 65 referrals during the fall semester last year. Staff members in the large district with over 50,000 students have been following up with families to ensure they are “true truancy cases” before making these referrals, she said.
“It’s sad to see your kid passing with flying colors to failing everything. He’s already trying his best and not doing well.”
In Chicago, Kishonna Gray decided to pull her children out of public school after receiving a similar letter. Gray, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, had been working remotely, supervising her kids’ learning, when one of them received a truancy notice in October.
There was the time she took her kids, in second and fourth grade, with her to a doctor’s appointment so they wouldn’t be left without supervision. Another time, she took them with her when she went to get her car fixed, an activity that took hours. While Gray’s husband is working remotely, his job is less flexible and he’s usually unable to pull himself away from the computer to watch the kids.
Gray allowed her youngest child to turn his camera off during class, which caused him to be marked as absent at his charter school, she says. Her child prefers to sit on a bouncy ball during class to help him focus, but his teacher told him it was distracting and asked him to stop. Gray gave him permission to turn off his camera to prevent him from distracting others if the ball would help him learn.
A few weeks later, she received a truancy letter, explaining that her youngest had missed five unexcused days of school. It warned that if the pattern continued, they could be subject to the “chronic truant adjudication hearing procedures.”
“Should your child be found to be a chronic truant and should you, your child, or both, fail to comply with any sanctions imposed by the hearing officer, the Department of Chronic Truant Adjudication may refer the matter to the Office of Cook County State’s Attorney for prosecution,” read the letter.
April Shaw, Namaste Charter School’s executive director, said parents had been told cameras should be on during live instruction. They were encouraged to reach out if they had concerns or needed accommodations, and a number have been granted. The truancy letters, required by Chicago Public Schools, are automatically generated, Shaw wrote in an email.
But Gray had already been having issues with her sons’ school. Remote learning had given her a look into their classrooms, and she didn’t like what she saw.
Her older child’s teacher would rally kids back to class after breaks by sounding a police siren ― a noise Gray, who is Black, found inappropriate, given the context of protests against law enforcement and the optics of a white teacher exercising control in that way over a majority Black and brown classroom.
Her younger child’s classroom was constantly being divided for activities based on gender, a pattern Gray found frustrating ― he is transgender. (Once she reached out to the school complaining about these issues, they made adjustments, Gray said.)
But at a time where teachers had the opportunity to reimagine the architecture of learning, Gray says she witnessed an emphasis on compliance and authority as opposed to curiosity and ideas. The truancy allegation seemed emblematic of these larger issues.
“I realized this space was going to do more harm to my kids at such an early age because they have the rest of their lives to be disappointed by the world,” Gray says. “At this time I would like them to be connected to advocates and people who support them.”
When Gray received the truancy letter, she sat her kids down and explained the situation to them ― that their mom could get in legal trouble for taking them to the doctors or allowing her youngest to turn off his camera. They didn’t understand. They equated courts and punishment with crimes like murder and stealing ― mommy had only tried to help them. She asked them how they felt about home schooling instead.
Now, Gray spends her day teaching her kids about the tenants of physics through at-home basketball games, and about kinesiology through dance and movement. She gives her kids Mondays off so she can work, while at-home school is in session Tuesday through Friday. As a professor, her classes are asynchronous this semester, making her schedule mostly flexible. A sample home school schedule shared by Gray in mid-October shows her teaching her children about decimals and plants and poetry. When and if she puts her kids back in school, she says she’ll be looking for another one.
“I measure success by their mental well-being, they’re happier kids,” says Gray, noting that her fourth-grader almost immediately stopped wetting the bed when she took him out of school. She hadn’t known that school had become such a stressor.
“I realized this space was going to do more harm to my kids at such an early age because they have the rest of their lives to be disappointed by the world.”
Shaw takes issue with Gray’s characterizations, noting that the school took steps to address her complaints, and emphasized its commitment to diversity, parent connectivity and a personal approach to learning.
“When the parent reached out with the concern, we immediately responded with ways to support the students,” including options to have the camera off and an alternative schedule, wrote Shaw. “We can confidently say that Namaste’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, along with parent and community communication and support were in place throughout the student’s time at Namaste.”
Gray worries about other students in Chicago Public Schools with fewer resources, who may be getting marked absent because of technological issues, or because their parents are working outside the home all day and aren’t able to supervise.
Chicago educator Megan Jackson, who teaches special education at a Chicago elementary school that serves predominantly low-income students, has seen these issues play out in her classroom. Many of her families work in retail, restaurants, and essential services and lack reliable child care, making it especially difficult to ensure that their young kids will log on and stay logged on.
One of Jackson’s first graders has missed some 20 days of school this fall because of various challenges, she says. His mother works at a chain food store and couldn’t stay home to care for him, so she often left him with relatives, where he had trouble accessing Wi-Fi. Then the student’s school-provided computer broke.
Jackson says she picked up the computer from the student’s home and took it to school to be repaired. While it was being fixed, the mom received a letter from the school marking her son as truant.
She says the district’s attendance policies don’t take into account the realities of parents’ lives and the obstacles to keeping young children engaged online. “They are trying to have an attendance policy like they are in person, but they are not in person,” Jackson says.
Chicago Public Schools spokesperson James Gherardi told HuffPost the district has told teachers “to exercise discretion, allowing for flexibility in determining attendance in the event of unforeseen circumstances and in adjustment to the remote learning environment,” including scheduling, connecting and logging in.
Hayden is not the only student in his district to receive truancy letters during the pandemic because of missed assignments.
An eighth grader named Cooper received one in October, baffling his mother, Kandis Seaver, who is home with him all day and hasn’t been working during the health crisis.
Cooper, like Hayden, has been mostly attending class ― though his mother admits he may have occasionally been tempted by computer games. His absences snowballed, however, over a failure to do homework. Cooper has always struggled with homework, something his mother tried not to interfere with in an effort to let him learn his own lessons.
He’s also been plagued by technological glitches in which completed assignments have failed to make their way to his teachers. His parents have had trouble sorting out which absences were a result of him not logging on for class and which were for not doing homework.
Cooper’s teachers, some of whom taught him in previous years, say he doesn’t participate like he used to. At one point this semester, he was failing all but one class, and the situation has only barely improved since.
Seaver and her husband have opted to keep Cooper home for safety reasons, even after in-person classes resumed. Now they wonder if they should enroll him in the district’s hybrid option. They wonder if the consequences of remote learning ― the poor grades, the legal threats ― make it worth the tradeoff, even though going back would make her son incredibly anxious over potential exposure to COVID-19.
“Combined with being stuck home all day and never seeing his friends except occasionally on FaceTime, I could imagine how it all feels altogether overwhelming,” says Seaver. “It feels like they made this policy and then we weren’t given any additional resources or anything.”
Local news reports say grades in the district have fallen this semester, as in districts around the country. (Seaver notes her appreciation for a recently rolled out virtual tutoring program.)
LaCoste-Caputo says Round Rock’s decline in student grades has been in line with peer districts and “most of the issues were not from low grades on assignments but from missing assignments as students were getting accustomed to this brand new and unfamiliar way of learning.”
Barentine worries about how this year will impact her son’s long-term relationship with school and his view of himself as a student.
“It’s hurting his self esteem,” says Barentine, who spoke with her son’s counselor and learned that most other students are struggling with the same issues.
Hayden still feels nervous that the family could be upended with legal consequences for truancy, no matter how hard he tries in school.
“I don’t think he really believes that nothing is going to happen,” says Barentine. “I just tell him that we have to do the best we can, and if you feel like you’re going to have a panic attack, tell the teacher you need a few minutes and give me a call.”
Caroline Preston contributed reporting.
This story about truancy was produced as part of an ongoing series on school discipline in the pandemic, reported by HuffPost and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter here.
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