Proposed bill hopes to reduce unexcused absences in WA schools

SPOKANE, Wash. — COVID-19 highlighted the disparities and barriers families face, especially for kids trying to attend school online.

Districts have measures in place to help make sure students are learning. A new bill in the Washington legislature hopes to help families and districts work together to ensure that.

Parents and school districts have the same goal: making sure students are healthy and learning.

However, it’s hard to do that when students miss school.

“It’s a two way street right, both sides need to make an effort to understand what’s happening and what are the barriers,” explained Scott Kerwien, the director of college and career readiness with Spokane Public Schools.

The more students miss class, the larger the gap they will have in their learning.

There are steps in place to figure out what those barriers are and how to fix them.

School districts use what’s called a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS).

If a child misses class, the teacher will try and reach out to the family. If that’s not possible because the teacher has to educate other students, they will send a message to their school’s team.

The MTSS team will then reach out to the family to try to understand what’s going on.

That was successful for Spokane Public Schools in one of many situations.

“The teacher noted a third grader at that time was in distance remote learning, the third grader wasn’t able to log in. So, the teacher emailed the building support team and then the support team called home and did some troubleshooting over the phone with mom. The student was in class within five minutes,” Kerwien recalled.

However, there are times where more has to be done.

Two MTSS intervention specialists with the Central Valley School District has had to go to students’ homes to see what’s going on.

“Quite a few times. Initially, that was our connection was actually going out and actually putting our feet on the ground and knocking on doors to try and get kids connected,” explained Renee Pryor, a MTSS intervention specialist with CVSD.

Before COVID hit, if a student had up to 10 days of unexcused absences in a school year, the district would have to serve a petition to parents for truancy. They would have to be referred to a Community Truancy Board and go to court to remedy that.

A new bill proposed in the state legislature by Representative Lillian Ortiz-Self wants to push that to 15 days rather than 10.

“It gives them these extra steps of going into looking into multi-tiered level of support,” Ortiz-Self said.

Because of COVID-19, the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction asked schools not to report any truancy cases due to many barriers with remote learning.

The proposed  bill would also change the name from the Community Truancy Board to the Community Engagement Board.

“Parents are scared to enter into those conversations with us because if we’re trying to report them a judge, why would they want to partner with us, right? The approach needs to be how can we together help meet your goal and our goal, which is the engagement and learning of your child,” Ortiz-Self said.

Other ways districts can try and remedy a student’s absence is working with counselors figuring out the problem as well as bringing a person who can speak a family’s native language if need be.

Right now, districts are just trying to do what they can to help ensure kids can get an education.

“We really make sure the basic needs of our families are being met on a daily basis, because we know that if that’s being addressed and being addressed well, then our students have the best opportunity to process that high level instruction that’s being provided,” said Lauren Waterbury, a MTSS intervention specialist with CVSD.

To read more on the bill, click here.