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Truancy cases see huge rise in McHenry County school districts, with officials blaming remote learning

Cases opened by county Regional Office of Education already more than doubled so far this year compared to 2018-19 academic year

Truancy cases opened for McHenry County school districts have already more than doubled so far this academic year compared to the 2018-19 school year, the last untainted by the COVID-19 pandemic, local truancy data shows.

Public education officials in the county attributed the huge rise to the remote learning situations most students in the area have been thrust into since March when concern about in-person schooling having potential to exacerbate the viral outbreak led to the closure of buildings.

While participating in school from home over the web has gone well for some students, with some even excelling more now than before the coronavirus invaded Illinois, hundreds appear to have been far less engaged without face-to-face lessons, classroom discussions and multiple daily periods of social interaction with peers.

“It is one of the unfortunate consequences of the ongoing pandemic,” said Tom Lind, superintendent of Nippersink School District 2 and the high school system it feeds, Richmond-Burton Community High School District 157.

Nippersink District 2 saw 17 truancy cases opened this academic year, up from just one last year and eight in the 2018-19 school year, data shared this month by McHenry County Regional Office of Education Truancy Officer Tim Dempsey shows.

“Our attendance policies have not changed, but how we approach students not participating regularly in remote learning has. We have dedicated significant resources to these students including an increased focus from school personnel such as social workers, counselors and school administrators,” Lind said.

That includes school staff making visits to homes of students who have not regularly participated in remote learning, he said. Dempsey, the county truancy officer, checks on students at home once his office is requested to help with those avoiding class.

In total, across all 18 school districts in McHenry County for which the Regional Office of Education tracks truancy data, the number of cases opened this academic year has so far risen more than 155% from 2018-19, from 140 to 358 cases, the data shows. Over the 2019-20 school year, the last two months of which included the initial transitions into remote learning in area school districts, 247 truancy cases were opened across the county, records indicate.

Most area school districts that have used hybrid learning plans featuring some in-person coursework and some online, or full in-person learning with social distancing practices in place, have seen smaller rises in the number of truancy cases since the pandemic began, or even decreases, the data shows.

Dempsey said he is noticing fewer truant students get reported to his office from the districts that have had an in-person aspect to schooling for most of this school year.

Few of the cases Dempsey opens land the parents of students involved in truancy court as Dempsey said he tries to keep families out of the legal system when possible by finding other ways to get a youth’s attendance back on track.

Right now, just three truancy court cases are pending that Dempsey has had to initiate, he said, and they stem from student attendance issues that occurred before the pandemic emptied classrooms.

Even without more cases being serious enough to end up in court so far, the trend of growing truancy case numbers during remote learning is troubling to local education officials, despite an expectation that the figures will begin to fall once students return to classrooms.

“It’s clear that students are more prone to be disengaged in remote learning without the teacher’s presence. This remote disengagement is a large concern,” said Harvard Community School District 50 Superintendent Corey Tafoya. “Learning styles vary. Some students are loving this, but many are not.”

His district so far this school year has seen 47 cases opened by the Regional Office of Education, up from 25 last year and 15 in 2018-19.

Solutions to truancy have been harder to achieve during the pandemic, too, for multiple reasons, Tafoya said, including greater difficulties at communicating with parents of students with attendance problems.

“In remote, students can be more deeply disengaged than when a student would temporarily shut down at school and not turn in homework for a little while,” Tafoya said.

He pointed to two types of situations involving parents that make truancy a more common dilemma than in the past, he said.

“We have seen a surge in parents reaching out to us at wit’s end because their kids aren’t participating in remote learning asking for our help. But on the flip side, we have also seen the need to report more cases because we can’t reach parents,” Tafoya said. “Typically we have support and team with the parents to solve the problem, but we have disengaged parents as well who aren’t returning our calls (or) emails.”

Woodstock Community School District 200 helped drive much of the jump from 140 truancy cases opened countywide in the 2018-19 school year to 247 in 2019-20. District 200 recorded 29 cases in the 2018-19 school year and then 79 last school year. So far this year, it has opened 78 truancy cases.

Dempsey isn’t the only one making home visits. He is part of a team that takes action when teachers notice students repeatedly out of class or falling behind.

“At both the middle and high school levels, there has also been a huge increase in deans and support staff making home visits, particularly toward the middle of last semester to reinforce the need for students to be engaged in remote learning,” District 200 Superintendent Mike Moan said in a statement provided by the district spokesman.

For many children in the area, a transition from fully remote learning to hybrid education schedules is set to occur in the coming weeks, which local officials hope improves the attendance habits of those struggling with remote learning.

“As we go back to full in-person learning, you will see the number of chronic truants go down as at-risk students will have greater access to the daily in-person supports they need,” Lind said.