Notices, home visits and stern calls. Then court dates and, in some cases, hefty fines. All of this piled onto the lengthy list of stressors for thousands of Allegheny County families in the 2020-21 school year. Why?

Missing school repeatedly.

All in all, more than 4,400 truancy cases were filed in Allegheny Courts against students and their parents in 2020 and the first half of 2021.

The cited students were spread across Pittsburgh Public Schools (the second largest district in the state) and 42 other school districts in the county, some of which held classes virtually, some in person and others a hybrid due to COVID-19.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, schools continued to enforce “compulsory attendance” laws that require families to ensure students attend school or potentially face punishment for unexcused absences. During remote learning, parents often had to ensure their child showed up to class by logging them on or trusting them to do it themselves.“There were a lot of kids that, frankly, no one saw for the last 18 months.”

“There were a lot of kids that, frankly, no one saw for the last 18 months.”

Districts across Allegheny County took different approaches to what counted as attendance and when to refer kids or their parents to court for truancy. Pittsburgh Public Schools, for example, said it needed to double down on efforts to contact and engage missing students, but still referred those with continued absences to court. In contrast, the more affluent North Allegheny School District, focused on flexibility around attendance and overall didn’t note significant problems with attendance. Their student populations are drastically different, with roughly 21,000 in the Pittsburgh district and 8,500 in North Allegheny.

Advocates have been encouraging less punitive responses as enforcement of truancy laws in some cases exacerbated burdens for families already struggling in the pandemic.

Some experts have called for a reform to truancy mandates to discourage court citations. They also see the current school year as an opportunity for schools and policy makers to rethink school response to truancy and absenteeism and how policies could be unfairly punishing or criminalizing students.

To understand the impact on local families, PublicSource requested truancy case data from the Pennsylvania court system for cases filed with magistrate judges in Allegheny County between January 2017 and June 2021. The court only provided aggregate annual numbers, making direct comparisons to school-year data provided by some districts impossible.

The court reported 11,708 truancy cases in Allegheny County between 2018 and June 2021.

The court data showed 578 truancy cases in 2017, a deviation from the other data PublicSource received. Neither the court nor other sources provided more insight into the data, so it is not included in overall calculations.

Due to privacy protections, details about the students or their guardians, including the fines and fees they were faced with, were available in fewer than 20% of the cases.

While the public information is often scant, the court data revealed the following details:

  • In 2020, 2,596 truancy cases were filed in local magisterial courts, down about 22% from 2019. School districts stopped truancy referrals for the rest of the school year following the March 2020 shutdown.
  • Between January and June 2021, 1,814 cases were filed — nearly 70% of total 2020 levels and 55% of total 2019 levels. 
  • 88% of 2,028 cases filed between January 2017 and June 2021 with a gender listed were filed against a mother, female caregiver or female student.
  • Of the 599 cases between January 2017 and June 2021 with a fine amount listed, the charges ranged from $4 to $778.

The true costs of truancy cases

Growing research suggests court involvement and punitive responses to truancy don’t fix attendance issues. In some cases, they can make it worse.

Disparities are notable. Some parents walk away from truancy cases with zero fines and fees. Others rack up court costs, sometimes for hundreds of dollars, and cases can extend months or across an entire school year.

But the cost of absence and truancy for a student is more than court fines.

Each year, an estimated 5 million to 7.5 million U.S. students miss nearly a month of school.

Students with more absences oftentimes have lower scores on national standardized tests, a 2014 analysis of national testing data showed. Students with more absences are more often low-income students and often have skill levels one to two years below their peers.

School staff and social workers, social service providers and researchers interviewed by PublicSource agreed that more kids and families needed help with attendance issues and resources in the pandemic than years past. While attendance challenges always existed, the shift to virtual learning environments exacerbated existent issues.Related story: Do PA schools have to send kids to court for unexcused absences? Read about 4 debunked truancy myths

Attendance data collection: a piecemeal approach

The collection of attendance data dropped sharply in early 2020. Just 27% of districts nationwide took attendance when school buildings closed and classroom instruction first shifted to being offered remotely.

By January 2021, the District of Columbia and 31 states (including Pennsylvania) required attendance to be taken again. Researchers say the inconsistent attendance records — and variation in what it means to “attend” — can make it difficult to measure how much instructional time a student misses and make comparisons district to district.

At the same time, schools grappled with how to account for students showing up to class — or not — in varying environments and amid unique hardships.

“A lot of states left a lot up to local control, which meant that one district could be doing it one way and another district could be doing it another way,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national attendance research and advocacy organization. “[Attendance] used to be this pretty widely understood metric. Everyone kind of took it the same way. And then once you went to remote instruction, that really got lost in general across the country.”

North Allegheny created new attendance codes to reflect and account for the changing circumstances affecting absence in hybrid learning. They included codes for quarantining or being in remote learning with COVID symptoms. But with new codes and so many unique situations for non-attendance, it was difficult to track how attendance compared to years past, said Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Joe Sciullo, who at the time was director of student services.

In that role, he led the district’s COVID response effort including monitoring attendance and participation online and offline. Truancy isn’t typically a concern for the district, he said. The school resource officers do home checks, hold meetings and facilitate other interventions, such as creating a plan with families.

North Allegheny reported 769 cases of truancy (more than six unexcused absences) to the state for the 2020-21 school year. This number doesn’t reflect how many students were referred to court by the district.Related story: Pittsburgh Public Schools sent nearly 1,000 students to truancy court during COVID

A critical time for reengagement

Some kids completely disengaged with the move online and weren’t participating during the pandemic. Other students, now back in buildings, have made significant transitions.

“There were a lot of kids that, frankly, no one saw for the last 18 months,” said Bridget Clement, executive director for Communities in Schools Pittsburgh & Allegheny County (CISPAC), a dropout prevention program. She and her staff often visited student homes to deliver food, technology and other needs.

Students are referred to CISPAC by school staff, to improve attendance and set goals for behavior, course performance and attendance.

(Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash)

While device access and internet connection might not be as widespread of a barrier this fall, some pandemic-born issues remain, including housing instability and mental health needs. And the new school year brought barriers such as bus transportation shortages and anxiety about being in school buildings.

University of Pennsylvania Associate Professor Michael Gottfried noted that re-engagement may prove difficult but critical for some kids who prefer virtual learning because it’s a safer space or they can balance school with jobs to support families.

Truancy experts and advocates have called on local and state leaders to reevaluate attendance policies for how they may be disproportionately impacting students as districts try to move forward from the pandemic.

In the summer, behavioral health liaison Cara Kelly and her colleagues who work with local school districts through the University of Pittsburgh’s MAPS program were constantly pondering what this upcoming school year would look like. They collectively worried about a potential uptick in truancy because many students who either didn’t show up during virtual learning or had sporadically attendance would now be required to be in classes five days a week.

Kelly said the early school months are an “adjustment period and a re-engagement period that is going to be crucial.”

TyLisa C. Johnson covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at tylisa@publicsource.org or on Twitter at @tylisawrites.

This story was produced as part of TyLisa C. Johnson’s participation in the Education Writers Association’s New to the Beat program.

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TyLisa C. Johnson

TyLisa C. Johnson is the Audience Engagement Editor at PublicSource. She’s passionate about telling compelling human stories that intersect with complex issues affecting marginalized groups. Before joining...