One of the biggest impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on students in recent years has been the disruption to in-person learning, especially with so many students being quarantined after possible exposure or parents temporarily leaving their children at home during the period of high permeability, such as B. during the Omicron wave.
Across the country, including Stanly County, the lack of time outside the classroom has resulted in higher absenteeism rates than before the pandemic. Because research shows that missing more than 10 percent of days in a school year can have a serious impact on learning, many students have fallen behind and will likely struggle to fully catch up.
“The students with the highest rate of absenteeism may be students who were once enrolled and then dropped out,” Beverly Pennington, director of student services at Stanly County Schools, told SNAP in an email. “Home visits, attempts to contact the parents, communication with any contact persons listed in our database have not yielded any information that would let us know where they are.”
Under North Carolina law, families of students who accumulate more than 10 unexcused absences could be charged with truancy if they do not make a good faith effort to send their children to school. The school principal has discretion to decide whether a family should be charged with truancy, which is rare and usually seen as a last resort.
“It is our desire to work with families to resolve the issues that have caused them truancy,” Pennington said. “Sometimes, however, situations are so egregious that we need to involve the courts in attendance issues.”
While she called the increase in absenteeism “worrying,” Pennington noted that members of the school system’s student support team (school social workers, counselors and nurses), teachers and administrators are “doing everything we can to encourage attendance.”
The issue of truancy and the rise in chronic absenteeism was first brought to the attention of SNAP in April when Albemarle resident Morgan Perez, mother of a second grade student enrolled in Endy Elementary’s bilingual program, spoke about how she was finding herself felt was wrongly singled out and charged with truancy in late January after her son missed 16 unexcused absences. Perez also addressed the Education Committee during the public comment portion of its June 7 meeting.
She told both SNAP and the school board that she gave legitimate reasons in advance for each of his absences, most of which occurred in January, at the height of the Omicron surge. She chose to keep her son at home temporarily because many people in the family, including Perez, were particularly vulnerable to contracting and contracting the virus.
“Stanly County Schools didn’t have mandatory prevention strategies in the schools and there wasn’t an option for my son to go remotely,” she said of the decision to pull him out of school.
Perez said she communicated with her son’s teacher on a daily basis and let him complete his necessary assignments, which she sent back to his teacher. She had also been in contact with Headteacher Jodi Autry, stating her son would come back once Covid numbers improved in the county.
Her regular contact with the school made it all the more surprising when on January 25, on instructions from Autry Perez, a social worker called to tell her that she had been charged with truancy. She said a few days later, on January 29, two police officers came to her home to deliver the criminal court summons.
“It was really traumatic for my son,” Perez told SNAP. “He thought I was going to jail. It was traumatic for him and it was traumatic for my whole family.”
Her truancy charges spanned multiple court dates, and although her case was ultimately dropped, she still had to pay $800 in attorney and attorney fees. She said she has since filed a public complaint against Autry.
Stanly County Schools said it cannot comment on cases related to specific student issues.
Perez, who took her son out of the school system and homeschooled him, submitted several public information requests to SCS to learn more about how many other families had been accused of truancy. Some of the data initially collected was shared with the SNAP.
She shared that as of mid-May, more than 950 elementary and middle school students had 10 or more unexcused absences. She asked how many truancy charges had been filed, but did not receive that data.
In a previous request for information, she noted that as of mid-March, out of the more than 630 students who had 10 or more absenteeism days, only nine truancy cases had been filed. (Her son was not included in the count because he was no longer enrolled in the district.)
“I’m glad most of these families have not been criminally charged, but why was my family singled out,” she told school board members. “It’s evident that truancy is extremely inconsistent in Stanly County.”
Perez is still debating whether to re-enroll her son in the school system next year or continue homeschooling him.
She added that SCS needs “immediate revisions” to its truancy policy so that “no other family falls victim to another unnecessary truancy charge.”
Pennington told SNAP that the district has an internal process that principals are required to follow regarding unexcused absences that is consistent with the state’s truancy policy.
“Our procedures include everyone from the class teacher, who addresses the family as successive absences accumulate, to the school social worker Contacting family to discuss barriers to school attendance as the student nears the 10-day mark,” she said.