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School Committee raises high school attendance concerns

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  The past several years of pandemic learning have had a big impact on school attendance, and some School Committee members are calling for a return to stricter attendance policies in the school.

  However, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Dianne Kelly said the district has to walk a fine line as the pandemic evolves between making sure students are in the classes they are supposed to be in and realizing the impact years of the pandemic learning have had on students.

  “I looked at the state law for attendance and basically it states that if you are out for eight days in a semester, that the attendance officer will literally bring you to court,” said School Committee Member John Kingston at Tuesday’s meeting. “While I am not looking so much for that, I am concerned about the number of students who are not attending school on a regular basis.”

  Kingston said he is especially concerned about attendance at the high school. He said that while there may have been some relaxation of attendance policies over the past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is time for attention to attendance to once again come to the fore. “I think that going forward for next year, it needs to be stated loud and clear that students need to be in school … and students need to understand that coming to school and being at school is their job, so to speak,” said Kingston.

  Kelly commented on the legality of the school attendance policies, noting that while children need to be at school if they are under 16, over that age it becomes a bit more of a challenge. “I will also say that I don’t think that court is a place to go when kids are disengaged from school,” said Kelly. “I think the issue is different from getting litigious. Usually, students who aren’t attending school have more social emotional problems that need to be addressed.”

  Kelly noted that the school system has increased its number of social workers and guidance counselors to help with those social emotional issues. “But we have not shied away from our responsibility of making sure our parents and families are aware when their kids are not attending school, and if children are under 16, we do still follow the state laws and work with the Department of Children and Families and the courts to look at children [who] require assistance programs,” said Kelly. “If a parent is being neglectful about a young person attending school that is addressed through the courts.”

  School Committee Member Aisha Milbury-Ellis said she also believes that the school department needs to be back on track when it comes to school attendance policies.

  “I think there are a couple of things that are in play here,” said Kelly. “I think what people are confusing are attendance policies and state laws and rules around that, and a policy under the purview of the School Committee that we changed.”

  The policy change stated that a student could not fail a course due only to attendance issues. “If they actually passed the course otherwise, they would still earn that grade,” said Kelly. “That was part of our equity plan to not penalize what are typically marginalized students who are negatively impacted by school attendance policies like that, and we have talked a lot about that over the last several years in our equity.”

  However, Kelly said she believes that policy is different from problems administration and School Committee members have been informed about by teachers at the high school, where students interpret the policy as being able to pick and choose when they want to attend class. “I think that is definitely something that needs more attention and more work,” said Kelly. “A new leadership team at the high school could focus more heavily on that and making sure communications to the students makes it clear that they do need to be in class and it is not okay to just be roaming the hallways.”

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