Is a lack of transportation keeping kids from school, task force asks
Published 4:19 am Thursday, November 2, 2023
Is a lack of transportation keeping students from attending classes? That’s the question Virginia’s Chronic Absenteeism Task Force looked at in their first meeting this past week.
As we’ve mentioned before, chronic absenteeism continues to be a problem in Prince Edward and Buckingham, and to a lesser extent, Cumberland County schools. The same is true across the state. To help combat this, The Virginia Department of Education (VDE) created a Chronic Absenteeism Task Force to look at solutions.
According to State Superintendent Lisa Coons, a student is considered chronically absent when they miss two days a month leading to 18 days a year. These students, especially grades third through eighth, are likely to score 18 percentage points lower in reading and 25 percentage points lower in math which will grow as they go into high school.
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“We know that chronic absenteeism is the number one factor that is impacting students’ ability to recover from unfinished learning,” Coons told the group.
Questioning the mixed message
At their meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 24, the members of the task force took turns sharing how absenteeism is in their district. According to many, a big factor is the unintended consequences of hybrid learning during the pandemic. Many students were not going to school every day as part of the hybrid schedule and now feel they still don’t need to go every day. Especially crossing into cold and flu season, a big narrative encouraged students to stay home if they felt any symptoms. Now, students and families are getting mixed messages as the students are asked to come if they’re not too sick.
Cumberland County Public Schools Superintendent Chip Jones agreed with this sentiment stated by his fellow task force members. He shared that he’s seen this problem in Cumberland too as parents have talked to him about this mixed message.
“Attendance matters because I need kids in school so they can learn on a daily basis,” Jones said. “For two years we told you not to come to school if you had the sniffles and now all of a sudden we’ve changed the message and said we need you in school every day even if you have a little sniffle.”
No one exactly had an answer for how to address that.
Talking about lack of transport
But beyond sickness, the major focus of the meeting involved transportation. As we’ve mentioned in articles before, in places like here in Central Virginia, part of the problem is a family situation. Some families in Prince Edward, for example, either have just one car or no vehicle at all. That causes a problem when a student misses the bus or doesn’t live near a bus route. If their parents or guardians can’t take them before going to work, these students miss class. Teachers, administrators, guidance counselors and school resource officers in Prince Edward and the surrounding areas have all at times gone to homes in the community to pick a student up. But that’s not a viable long-term solution.
Carl Allen and Mary Dillman of 4MATIV, a technology and service platform that helps schools manage transportation, presented new approaches to transportation that the task force members could bring back to their districts.
The presentation focused on how the yellow school bus has been a solution for decades but it doesn’t have to be the only solution. While the system does work in some cases, it has limited communication, lack of differentiation of services and can have some safety concerns. School districts were encouraged to be creative in coming up with new solutions that worked for them.
From the presentation, one of the things that stuck out to Jones was utilizing some of the different examples of strategically differentiating transportation. This includes vans and other types of smaller vehicles to help fill in the gap where the standard yellow buses may not be the best option.
Jones noted how Cumberland is a long and narrow county. Many of the students who leave early or come in late and miss instructional time could be those who live in those furthest points and have an hour-long bus ride.
“Attendance matters because especially in a rural area where there’s high poverty, education is a turning point for anyone,” said Jones. “It’s something no one can take away from you.”
Beyond a lack of transportation
The group meets every two weeks to look at everything that is playing a role in creating more absent students. That includes food scarcity, health and safety, along with the aforementioned lack of transportation.
After going through all of these issues, the task force will then come up with ways they can be helped. Maybe that’s through a state grant. Maybe it’s through moving resources and manpower from one department to another. And if there are any regulatory hurdles, if government red tape is somehow stopping best practices from being used, the task force will flag that too. That’s why no votes were taken or decisions made during this meeting. It’s only the first of many.
Also, to be clear, this isn’t a group of state bureaucrats. The group includes five school district superintendents, including Chip Jones. There’s also two school principals, one school board member, a parent representative, a YMCA director and a medical doctor. Anything the group comes up with, in addition to going out to school boards, will also be posted on the Virginia Department of Education website, so people can see what’s happening.