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Pandemic Truants Flag the Need for School Reform

October 5, 2020

A recent NY Times article by Amy Goodnough describes the struggle school districts are facing tracking down remote learning “truants”, a large group of students who have not logged into their virtual classrooms. The article offers a series of explanations for the thousands of students who are missing classes. Some students couldn’t participate in remote learning classrooms because they lacked high speed internet connections or didn’t have a device capable of connecting to the platform their school is using. In other cases, older students missed classes because they were providing child care for preschoolers or overseeing the remote learning of younger siblings so their parents can go to work. And in some instances, the students themselves were working to help support the family. However, Ms. Goodnough overlooked one very real reason for the absences: some students are “truant” because they realize there are no consequences if don’t attend remote classes. Based on my experiences as a high school disciplinarian in the late 1970s, I sense that this group is sizable.

I served as a high school administrator for six years, serving three years as an Assistant Principal in a blue collar suburban Philadelphia high school of 650 students and three years as the lone administrator in a 400 pupil regional high school in Bethel, Maine. During these years I gained an appreciation for how the world looked to the non-college bound high school students who comprised the majority of the students in both schools. Many of them felt invisible, neglected, and unappreciated. These overlooked students didn’t misbehave or participate in the life of the school. They did just enough to get by. They never missed school often enough to draw attention and took only the courses they needed to graduate. Like some of the students described in Ms. Goodnough’s article, many of them helped out with child care and pitched in to cover the costs of their households– households that often lacked some of the conveniences present in the homes of their more affluent classmates in the same way that some of today’s remote learning “truants” lack computers and internet access.

In my first year as a High School Principal in Bethel in 1978, the lone guidance counselor at the school went on leave in the Spring. As a result, I helped each student develop their schedules for the coming year. To help identify courses that might interest them, I asked each student what they hoped to do once they graduated. Many of the non-college bound students had no clear picture. They told me they just wanted to “get out of school”. These teenagers knew how many years until they reached the age where they no longer needed to attend school or knew the minimum number of courses they needed to pass in order to graduate. For many of these students, school was joyless.  It was a place where most of their classmates and teachers failed to appreciate the hardships they experienced at home.  And in too many cases it was a place that made them feel like failures. Had there been remote learning in response to a pandemic in the late 1970s I doubt that these disengaged students would be logging on to attend a virtual class. Nor would the 10% of the students who were labelled “frequent flyers” for the many times they were sent to my office for misconduct or skipping class. 

Andreas Schleicher, OECD’s Director for Education and Skills and an advocate for the use of technology in education, acknowledges the limitations of the kind of remote learning we are now using in response to the pandemic. He writes:

“It is clear that (online learning) will not reach everyone and it’s not just a matter of access to devices,” he says. “If you don’t know how to learn on your own, if you don’t know how to manage your time, if you don’t have any intrinsic motivation, you won’t be very successful in this environment.”

Once this pandemic is over, public schools have an opportunity to make certain that all students have the intrinsic motivation to learn. By personally connecting with those students who willfully avoided remote learning, it might be possible to develop an individualized learning plan for each of them based on the unique skills they possess,  a plan that was designed to engage them and give them an intrinsic motivation to learn, for that is what is needed on today’s world. All schools, but especially secondary schools, could focus more on the developing skills that will help students no matter what direction their life leads them. Instead of promoting courses that focus on preparation for college, high schools could emphasize the interpersonal, artistic, financial management, and physical skills that will benefit students whether they attend college or not. The pandemic has shown us all the importance of “essential workers” and the dignity of their jobs. There is a gap between the attributes and skills those workers possess and what we emphasize in schools. By acknowledging that that gap and striving to close it we might be able to re-engage the remote learning truants and make school a more joyful experience for all students. 

  1. Byron Knutsen
    October 5, 2020 at 5:53 pm

    I certainly agree that something needs to be done for students who are “getting by” without making big waves of “notice me, I am sluffing”. There are too many in normal times before covid who have come out without the self motivation need to take care of themselves. I realize that not all individuals have the same level of self motivation but there are many who could also use a boost or a starter in that direction. Schools, once again, will be called upon to take up the slack and they will. But, society itself should step up and not always depend on governmental agencies to shoulder all the burden. Some churches are instituting a self reliance program in which individual worth, emotional health, finances, running a business, value of education either in the trades or book learning, are taught. One thing I feel that has set the country back is the aid system that was given to families for many years that does not support having both father and mother in the home. If we give more money to a mother as she has more children, why not give some incentive to parents to be married and together. It could be money, or it could be help with some training, or help with child care to get training. A great travesty was put on the family when this system was started. It said, we no longer need fathers in the home. Yes it will cost more, but the cost in lost people is way more then the cost in money.

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