How many days can a child miss? COVID complicates absenteeism


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

An absenteeism officer had visited them.

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

The note set off alarm bells in Lindsey-Jones’ mind.

“It’s quite embarrassing, people are walking past and the sheriff’s department sitting in my front yard is ringing my doorbell,” she said.

Lindsey-Jones said there was no easy way to access information on when to quarantine children at school and for how long. She had even called the school nurse, but miscommunication led her to keep Cricket at home longer than necessary.

Now the mother was being investigated for something she thought she was doing right. She worried if she would be brought to justice or sent to prison.

That’s not the job of absentee officers, but many families don’t understand the nature or goals of their jobs, said Sgt. Earl Henry with the Absenteeism Division of Ouachita Parish.

“A lot of them think we’re here just to punish them,” Henry said. “Were not. Our main goal is to find out what is causing the attendance issues. … We just want to help get the child back to school.

Henry said truancy officers work toward that goal by checking families when they show up in the system as needing a referral. They also refer families to counseling agencies and other resources to help them determine the best way to keep students in class.

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

But it’s not up to them to determine who skips school. Since 2013, officers at Ouachita Parish have been working with an automated system called Webpams. Schools enter the late arrivals and absences of their students. Once students reach a certain limit, officers are alerted to check them, either by phone or in person.

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

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

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

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

Truancy is defined as any student who is either five days unexcused late or five days unexcused absent during a school semester, according to an LDOE spokesperson. Absenteeism is the percentage of students who skip school at a site in a given year.

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

No totals were calculated for the 2019-20 school year as officers filled out deputy lists in light of the pandemic. Still, for the 2020-21 school year, there were 7,749 dismissals.

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

Families are tasked with following quarantine guidelines, which have changed throughout the pandemic in response to COVID surges and a mission to keep children from missing out on too much in-person instruction.


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

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

“We cannot communicate enough about the importance of regular school attendance – as it is critical to a student’s success,” read a statement from the LPSS. “It is imperative that students attend school regularly so as not to fall further behind. The cumulative impact of frequent absences starting in elementary school greatly increases the likelihood that a child will become a high school dropout.

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

Hearing officers work closely with social workers to address discipline-related issues that could lead to suspensions and expulsions.

“We need to stay focused on making decisions that have the most positive impact on our students,” Superintendent Irma D. Trosclair said in a statement. “Having a strategic approach to academic recovery and acceleration can deter any potential impact disproportionately affecting the educational careers of our students. 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 progress” in addressing school truancy before the pandemic, and then COVID-19 complicated matters further, 9th Judicial District Judge John Davidson said.

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

Part of Roberts’ job is to visit students’ homes when they are not showing up for truancy meetings. She might find indifferent parents, those who really need help, or students playing with the system put in place to combat COVID-19.

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

Jessie Price, juvenile court coordinator and liaison with the Rapides Parish District Attorney’s Office, said some children have sought to transition to virtual school as a way to stay out of schools.

“They found their way,” she said.

Clifton Spears, the DA’s juvenile prosecutor who also works with the group, said about 1,200 Rapides students are skipping school “any day.”

And that’s not counting kids who never signed up for classes, transferred or dropped out, he said.

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

He works to find solutions for students and parents willing to help. Those who refuse may be placed in the custody of juvenile justice officials.

Spears said most of those dragged into court straighten out when they realize truancy is a problem. For a lot of kids, he said the parents are the problem.

He said he had an “unbreakable rule of thumb” about truancy: if a child is under 10, it’s a parental issue. From 12 to 14 years old, it’s a draw. But for students over 14, that’s their problem.

Destiny Fatula, the Rapides coordinator of the My Community Cares program, said some families really lack support and are not well placed. Add to that the pandemic, and it amplifies all the problems that were already there, she said.

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

Economic stimulus payments sent to people to help them cope with financial hardship are now gone. She said she had teenagers in some of her cases at home who watched their younger siblings because their parents couldn’t afford child care.

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

It is important to know the needs of families instead of telling them what they need, said Fatula. Building trust is key, she said.

The goal is to keep kids in school, Davidson said, but they only go where they are invited.

“If we can keep our children in the hands of their (educators), everything will be fine at Rapides Parish,” Davison said. “If they fall into our hands, not so much.”

Any momentum the group had built came crashing down with the pandemic, he said. This still remains a challenge.

“I fear we have lost a generation of students,” Davidson said. “A lot of students we deal with struggle with basic skills, and I don’t know how you can take a year or two and still hone those skills.”


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