LEWISTON — The school district is working to reduce a high rate of truancy by increasing communication with students and parents.

Superintendent Jake Langlais said that “by definition,” more than 1,000 of the school district’s 5,200 students have been considered truant this year.

Students are considered truant if they miss more than three consecutive days without an excuse.

“That is probably overstated because of the processes for capturing attendance,” he told the School Committee on Monday night. “When we dug deeper, we found there were not that many, but the numbers are still too high. We will continue to monitor them.”

In a memo to the committee, Langlais listed 35 reasons for student absences, including No. 1: We are in a pandemic.

“The very nature of our daily lives operates with increased anxiety,” he wrote.

And No. 2: People are sick and that causes fear, up to and including fear of death. “I don’t want to be morbid, but this is a reality,” Langlais said.

The list also noted that home is not school and parents are not teachers. If they are, they are teaching remotely while trying to help their own children.

Also, computers are not people and that affects interpersonal connections and relationships.

“When students are stuck for big or small reasons, it causes a new level of frustration because of the intermittent windows in which there is no one there to help,” Langlais said. “In school, (available help) is often a constant.”

Also, students can’t learn from one another and instruction lacks continuity if they don’t attend on remote days.

Langlais listed 20 things the district is doing to reduce truancy, such as communicating with students and parents by email, phone and through Zoom, Facebook and the district’s website in seven languages. Interpreters also are available and the website eventually will have the capability of automatic translation.

School staff is making home visits to check in and drop off and pick up materials, a hotline for questions has been shared, and day programming has been arranged with community partners and is growing.

Schools have teams that track attendance, first with phone calls and emails, then with home visits and finally, with a certified letter to parents or guardians.

Some apparent truancy is created when students do not turn in remote assignments by the time the school day ends.

“I don’t want to ask teachers to go in at 7 at night and check for work and correct attendance,” Langlais told the School Committee.

Committee member Elgin Physic, who requested the attendance data, asked how the high levels of student disengagement would affect classes in the next school year.

“If students haven’t been seen in a year, we can’t let them be promoted,” Physic said.

Langlais said the logjam of students making up lost time would not be a one-year fix.

“We are looking at how to coordinate a three-year plan,” he said. “We don’t want to send kids along (to the next grade) and have them be lost, but socially and emotionally, it’s pretty damaging to hold kids back.”

A rigorous summer school program could help, but Langlais worried that some teachers already are working an unsustainable number of hours each week.

“What they’re doing is unbelievable,” he said. “To ask them to work all summer, even for more money, it’s another multi-month commitment without a break.”

Starting the 2021-22 school year earlier is another option, he said, but “right now, projections are that we may not even be able to start school on time this year.”

Langlais appealed to students who have been disengaged to return to instruction.

“We will not be satisfied until we have all students reengaged with school,” he said. “If you are at home wondering when it is the right time to jump back in, the answer is NOW.”

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