Prince Edward students are constantly absent. What’s the solution?

Published 6:30 pm Tuesday, February 7, 2023

FARMVILLE – It’s a problem across the district. In Prince Edward County, more than 35% of public school students were chronically absent during this year’s first semester.

This issue started before this year. During the 2021-22 school year, Prince Edward Elementary reported 27.5% of their students were chronically absent. In the same period, Prince Edward Middle reported 30.9% and the high school reported 47.7% of their students met that category.

To be clear, chronic absenteeism is defined as missing more than 10% of instructional days, including excused, unexcused and disciplinary absences. And Prince Edward is not alone, when it comes to dealing with chronic absences. Virginia Department of Education data shows last year, 29.8% or roughly one in every three Virginia students missed at least 18 days of school. That’s an increase over the 20.1% reported after the 2020-21 school year.

Email newsletter signup

Prince Edward is close to the top, however. Dickenson County is one of the few higher, with 43.1% of students chronically absent. Bristol is another, at 34.9%.

The numbers alone raise concern, especially at Prince Edward High. But beyond just the simple numbers is a looming problem. Virginia’s Department of Education didn’t grade schools on absentee students for the last two years, due to the pandemic. The same is true this year. But that protection goes away after the current semester.

That means in order to get all of the district’s schools fully accredited, the issue has to be fixed. And Prince Edward’s staff say they have a plan in place to do this.

Prince Edward staff want students to SOAR

The school district’s staff want their students to S.O.A.R. That stands for Show up, On Time, All day, Ready to learn. Under the plan, each of the schools gives incentives to promote daily attendance. The idea is to do whatever possible to get the student in the doors.

“We want our students to have every opportunity to be successful,” said Le’Tina Giles. She serves as family engagement coordinator for Prince Edward County Public Schools.

An important component, Giles said, is to have support from parents and caregivers to encourage their students to be present and learn. Regular attendance promotes healthy habits, social skills and a positive routine, she argues. Only missing one day a month can quickly add up and cause students to miss out on important instructional time.

As for what’s causing the problem, a study from Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) shows mental health is the main issue across the state. More than 50% of all Virginia middle school students and two-thirds of high school students said they’re constantly nervous, anxious or on edge. Ten percent of middle school students in Virginia and 13% of high school students said they considered suicide in the last year.

The study also recommended letting psychologists from other fields to be provisionally licensed to work in schools. However, a problem in rural districts like Prince Edward involves finding psychologists in the region able to get involved.

The staff needs help with the problem

According to PEPCS, students who miss 10 days of school are missing about 60 hours of instructional time. This can cause more significant problems for students who are already behind in their learning and miss more class time.

In Virginia, chronic absenteeism is also linked to school accreditation and any student who misses 18 days of school will count against the school’s attendance used for accreditation. Dr. Michelle Wallace, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, reported at the September School Board meeting that staff and teachers will need help in order to fix the problem.

“Our teachers are doing everything they can to get students to school,” Wallace said. “We’re calling them. We’re making home visits. We are going to the homes, we are knocking on the doors, we are giving them alarm clocks. [We] are picking them up if they let us know they need a ride if they miss the bus. We do what we can to get the kids to school.”

Wallace said the district needs parents to make sure students get to school.

“We can do all the great things with student achievement, but if kids don’t come to school and our absenteeism doesn’t improve, our schools will continue to be accredited with conditions,” she told the board.

What she and other district officials are asking for is community support. They’re asking churches to encourage attendance, along with any employers some of the older high school students have. The same goes for coaches or even family friends.

Wallace said the district works with the local Department of Social Services on the issue as well. In Virginia, parents can lose their EBT card and other benefits if they don’t send their children to school.