Picture this: A student with ADHD is attending the two days of in-person classes, as he is expected to, each week, but he fails to log on to participate in synchronous learning at home for several days in a row. Or how about the student with autism who participates in remote learning according to his schedule, but misses several days of in-school learning?
A teacher may have assumed before the COVID-19 pandemic that these students were truant, choosing when and when not to attend their classes. Now that students have had a wide range of experiences during quarantine and are returning partially or fully to schools that look different, it is critical to consider what else may be at play if a student fails to show up for class.
“You can’t ignore state mandates if they still exist,” says Julie C. Fay, a school attorney at Shipman & Goodwin LLP in Hartford, Conn. “But what goes hand in hand with that is you must try to identify the barriers to student and family engagement and how to connect with students. It is not as simple as a student is just not showing up to school.”
Take these actions to address unexcused absences this school year:
1. Review state and district guidance
Many states have issued attendance guidance in anticipation of the new school year, Fay says. Districts are also issuing their own guidance. Review your state’s and district’s guidance on what constitutes an absence and unexcused absence or truancy and how to track attendance in this new era. Consider:
- What does a full day of learning look like now? How much in-person learning does a student have to miss to be considered absent?
- What counts as being “present” when students learn partially or fully remotely? How do you track participation? Time in synchronous remote learning? Time in virtual meetings with the teacher? Time logged into the learning platform?
- If a student doesn’t have reliable access to the internet, do you track work completion?
“There are not a lot of black and white rules for that,” Fay says.
2. Emphasize engagement
Be vigilant when it comes to student participation. Communicate with parents and students as much as possible and promote student engagement in person and remotely. “If a student is not coming to school or is not logging in, you need to reach out to the student and family to find out why,” Fay says. “IEP teams have an obligation to communicate with parents and the student to identify any barriers to engagement.” You may need to email the student and parents, call, send letters, and go to the student’s home to connect.
Find out if it is a technology issue. Or maybe the student has developed anxiety about going to school; or his parents are too anxious to send him to school. The student’s parents may have work schedules that coincide with the time when their child may need support to log on or be driven to school.
Your local child and family agency may need to get involved and go to the home to check on the family’s welfare. The student’s IEP team may need to meet to discuss a change in the student’s programming, says Fay. For example, he may need to change from full-time remote learning to a hybrid model.
3. Look deeply into truancy
You may find that a teenage student with a disability who may not have had the best attendance before the pandemic may choose not to log on or come to school, Fay says. “‘I don’t feel like logging on’ is different from ‘I don’t have a good internet connection.’ That may be a truancy issue.” Still, it is complicated. The student may feel hopeless about the future and wonder what the point is of continuing with school and need supports to see things differently.
“I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all remedy,” Fay says. “But if a student is not participating, the case manager has to reach out to identify the reason for the lack of engagement and the team needs to see if there are any solutions for it. There may be better ways to serve the student.”
Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.