Amid COVID-19 Fallout, Families of Remote Student Learners Face Fines, Prosecution

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“Truancy” rules have exacerbated the pandemic-induced challenges confronting many households, from economic instability and mental-health crises to a lack of adequate Internet access, resulting in a growing concern among policymakers that pandemic-era absences are funneling children into the juvenile justice system and pushing parents into contentious interactions with child protective services, reports The Guardian. In Manitowoc, a 33,000-person enclave along the Lake Michigan shoreline, truancy citations have spiked this school year, with, so far, officials handing out 249 “habitual truancy” citations to students who’ve accumulated at least five unexcused absences. Officials issued 198 truancy citations during the 2018-2019 school year. City rules allow the fines to be expunged if truant students begin attending classes regularly or complete community service at a rate of $10 an hour to pay them off. Years of research tie chronic absenteeism to a host of negative factors, including a heightened risk of dropping out of school and involvement with the criminal justice system. However, truancy rules often introduce students to the juvenile justice system in the first place as many states rely on courts and criminal sanctions–including incarceration–to enforce attendance rules.

In turn, truancy rules could perpetuate racial disparities in that same system. Nationally, students of color are disproportionately referred to court for truancy compared with their white classmates. In addition, a recent report by the non-profit Council of State Governments Justice Center found that South Carolina students placed on probation for truancy issues wound up with even worse school attendance than they had before the courts got involved. Many families that also barely manage to get by financially are hard-pressed to afford the fines levied for their child’s lack of attendance. Some parents would like to see truancy rules taking into account the pandemic’s devastating toll on youth mental health. In one instance, rather than providing a student with special needs with the mental health care and special education supports that his mother said he desperately needed, the district pushed the family into a court battle to address his truancy or face punishment, the mother said, costing her more than $1,000 to hire an attorney. The end result, she worries, will be a fine under the state truancy law. In Pennsylvania, officials with child protective services said they’ve been overwhelmed by the volume of truancy referrals.

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