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Truancy a growing problem in the age of distance learning

The number of students being reported to Kandiyohi County for truancy has risen quickly this year, in the era of COVID-19 and distance learning. The county's truancy mediation program is trying to be more creative in how it helps families get students back in school while keeping as many cases as possible out of the courts and child protective services.

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The COVID-19 has caused school truancy cases to rise in Kandiyohi County as students and parents struggle with distance learning while more common reasons for truancy continue to be an issue. File photo / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — School truancy cases are never easy, but 2020 has added a whole new dimension as COVID-19 and distance learning have pushed students and parents even harder.

"It has not been a typical year at all, for school issues, as you can imagine," said Becky Anderson, Kandiyohi County truancy coordinator. Anderson, along with Supervisor JoLynn Sundstrom, presented on the truancy program and how the pandemic has impacted the work at Tuesday's Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners meeting.

State law requires all children to be enrolled in school from the time they are 7 years old to 17. If a student is not attending school they can be considered truant and such cases can end up involving courts and child protective services. The county's mediation program allows Anderson to work with the families on a solution before it gets there.

"The goal is to find out why the kid is not going to school and what we can do to help," Anderson said.

In years past, Anderson would usually have 200 to 300 truancy cases each school year, referred by the school districts and private schools in Kandiyohi County. This year she is already monitoring 150 students, and the school year is barely half way through.

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"I just don't know what the future will bring, for the rest of the school year," Anderson said.

Warning signs regarding truancy were already visible during the last few months of the last school year, when COVID-19 shut down all in-person learning. Those trends have unfortunately continued as schools work to provide education to students in an unusual year.

"You could see it coming," Anderson said. "It was just an inundation of calls and referrals. We started getting many, many referrals."

Truancy issues can impact all families, no matter their background, but some risk factors such as poverty, mobility and chemical dependency issues are common. The pandemic has added even more challenges such as internet access and the ability for parents to monitor their children's school participation.

"It is a big challenge for parents, especially if they are working full-time," Anderson said.

Truancy is difficult and the mediation meetings with Anderson can be emotional, for all involved.

"During the meetings we have students crying, parents crying, parents surprised their little child isn't being honest with them," about whether they actually are completing their schoolwork while doing distance learning, Anderson said. "Children are just not equipped to be in control of their education."

The meetings are also a way to help the parents, who are probably struggling themselves to meet all the responsibilities.

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"They are embarrassed to ask for help," Anderson said. "We are trying to normalize that."

Schools have been doing all they can to keep their students engaged in their education, even though classes through a computer screen are in no way a replacement for face-to-face instruction. Anderson said schools could probably be referring even more truancy cases to her but are holding off.

"They are trying to give a lot of grace to families," Anderson said.

If mediation doesn't work and students continue to miss school, cases can be sent to the court system or child protective services. There, families will be ordered to follow a list of requirements and it could even mean a fine or community services for the parents and/or student depending on the age of the child.

"We can go to court for truancy. It is taken very seriously in our court system," Anderson said.

On average only about 4 percent of truancy cases in the county go to the court system, a testament to the hard work Anderson does.

"Becky's work has not gone unnoticed," Sundstrom said.

School truancy has been an issue for decades, long before COVID-19 or distance learning. Reaching out to families early and attempting to solve those problems before they can negatively impact a student's future is the underlining goal of Anderson and the county program.

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"Sometimes one meeting with families is enough to get their attention and realize how important it is that the parents have to monitor what their kids are doing," Anderson said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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