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New Orleans Public Schools Look To Address Attendance Concerns Without Truancy Enforcement

Aubri Juhasz
PreK students learn in-person at KIPP Central City Primary on Oct. 2, 2020.

With traditional truancy enforcement suspended, New Orleans public schools are working to develop new procedures to identify and engage with chronically absent students, according to Dina Hasiotis, the district’s chief school support and improvement officer.

Hasiotis provided a schools update to Orleans Parish School Board members Tuesday. The full board is scheduled to meet Thursday.

“As of right now, the focus is on engaging with families primarily after 15 days of absences, where they have not shown up in some way,” Hasiotis said.

In a typical school year, the New Orleans Police Department helps enforce attendance policies by identifying students who are truant — skipping school without permission — and bringing them to the district’s truancy center.

But with few students on a traditional learning schedule, the department has suspended enforcement.

In August, NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson announced they were suspending truancy enforcement, but would continue to enforce a juvenile curfew starting 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Hasiotis did not share recent attendance numbers, but said that the district is currently conducting truancy checks and providing social work services to families when needed.

When all students were learning virtually, New Orleans public schools’ weekly attendance rate was 81 percent — down roughly 10 percent from a typical school year, according to district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo.

When younger students returned to the classroom in late September, the weekly attendance rate climbed to 86 percent. The district expects attendance to further increase now that older students have the option to attend classes in-person at least two days a week.

But many families are turning down the option. Across all grades, about 40 percent of students are set to remain entirely virtual through at least the end of the quarter.

“Truancy is a challenge under normal circumstances," board member John Brown Sr. said. "With so many of our parents not electing to return to school, how can you possibly gauge who is truant and who is not?” 

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said the district will rely on attendance data to determine whether in-person or virtual students are truant.

“Whether you are virtual or in-person, the key to this conversation is that teachers are taking attendance,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said. “When students are chronically absent, we are still going through our normal protocols.”

Hasiotis said the district is working with NOPD to develop new truancy protocols in light of virtual and hybrid learning. At this time, the district’s Office of Student Support and Attendance has also suspended legal action in truancy cases and is not referring families to the Municipal Court.

Rather than punish students for being absent, the district said, their focus is on determining why the student is missing school and coming up with a solution such as improving internet connectivity. To make this happen, Hasiotis said they’ve increased the number of social workers available to conduct home visits.

During virtual learning, the district encouraged schools to refer at-risk students to The Bridge, a therapeutic middle school turned rapid response program. Between the start of the school year and the end of September, The Bridge received 178 referrals from 20 different schools.

Board members advance COVID-19 measures

Orleans Parish School Board members advanced a number of coronavirus related measures at Tuesday’s meeting, including the district’s requests to purchase new learning equipment and amend its contract with LSU Health Sciences of New Orleans.

Board members approved the district’s request to purchase more than $550,000 worth of technology to update computer hardware for testing purposes and provide more schools with the necessary tools for hybrid and virtual learning. The purchases will be made using CARES Act funding.

They also advanced the district’s request to extend its contract with LSU Health Sciences of New Orleans until June 30, 2021. LSU physicians have served as the district’s COVID-19 “medical advisors.” The original contract is set to expire at the end of the month.

If approved by the full board on Thursday, the value of the contract will increase from $95,000 to $145,000. The scope of the contract will also shift to allow “limited clinical services related to ordering and reporting testing for COVID-19.”

During Tuesday’s virtual board meeting, Hasiotis said the district is exploring ways to offer students and staff routine testing.

The district offers rapid testing to symptomatic students and staff through a partnership with LCMC Health Children’s Hospital and Ochsner Hospital for Children, but does not currently conduct any form of surveillance testing.

Charter renewals and school safety

Board members also heard updates from the district’s chief accountability officer Kevin George and chief operations officer Tiffany Delcour.

George said his team is currently reviewing district schools up for charter renewal this year. There are 18. Prior to this year, the most they’re ever had in one year was nine.

Nearly a third of the 18 schools could lose their charter due to poor academic performance. Five of the schools received grades of D or F from the Louisiana Department of Education for the 2018-19 school year. (New grades have not been given since then due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. will decide whether schools have shown enough improvement to remain open. If he decides they haven’t he can hand them over to a new operator or shut them down entirely.

Lewis is expected to make official recommendations on low performing schools by the end of the year. The school board can overturn his decision with a supermajority vote. The schools with higher letter grades automatically qualify for another charter term.

COVID-19 safety inspections have been completed for all district elementary and middle schools, according to Delcour. Fifty-three inspections were completed between Sept. 17 and Oct. 9 by the district’s facility and operations team.

Delcour said there were no major findings at any site and that schools were largely in compliance with the district’s health and safety standards. She said any concerns were resolved before the inspector left campus and in many cases had to do with improving the schools’ arrival process, which includes screening students for COVID-19 symptoms before they enter the building.

High school inspections began on Oct. 12 and are expected to be complete by the first week in November.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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