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Truancy in Mon schools: Officials want to engage rather than punish

It wasn’t that long ago when students in Monongalia County’s school district were simply trying to get by in the midst of the pandemic.

With COVID-19 turning traditional attendance into a patchwork quilt, some didn’t get by at all.

Unpredictability was the new rule after morning bell.

Students went part-time, if infection rates allowed, and worked remotely, if technology and the environment at home allowed.

Maybe the kid lived out in rural Mon and couldn’t always get to a Wi-Fi location.

Maybe a mom and dad were arguing about money — pandemic-fueled job furloughs — and that was just too much angst, and distraction, for their kid to try to tap through an online book report or digital table of equations.

Maybe one missed assignment turned into seven missed assignments.

Maybe it was just easier to check out of class altogether.

“Attendance is our biggest reset for the coming year,” Deputy Schools Superintendent Donna Talerico told Board of Education members at their regular meeting Tuesday night.

That was the lead-in to her introduction of attendance officer Danica Rubenstein, who briefed the board on just how the district deals with students who are truant.

Which needed an official definition, first.

Being chronically truant, Rubenstein said, means missing 15 or more consecutive school days in a year. If you think that’s a West Virginia thing, think again, she said.

“Truancy isn’t just here,” she said. “It’s everywhere.”

And yes, truant children get into trouble — court-system trouble — and parents and caregivers can, also, for presumably allowing it to happen.

“Truancy is a status offense,” Rubenstein said.

“It can be punishable, but in Monongalia County Schools, we don’t want to go to that level.”

Rubenstein knows the terminology because she lived it.

She was a police officer and probation officer in California and at various locales across West Virginia before life brought her to Morgantown.

Even with that resume, it isn’t automatically juvenile court or magistrate court for her, she said.

“Data shows engaged students are more successful,” she said.

“We want to engage kids,” she continued.

“We want to start at the elementary level and keep them engaged.”

In Mon County’s schools, that’s as easy as it is complicated.

And it definitely takes work, Tracy Sylvester told The Dominion Post previously.

Sylvester is a former teacher who now serves as assistant principal at Skyview Elementary, on River Road.

Yes, she knows all about the assistant principal’s main job description, which is be a hard-liner about attendance: Where’s your hall pass?

What about that doctor’s slip?

It means your phone chirping and your email dinging with texts and messages with your kid’s name in the subject line, should there be consecutive absences.

Phone calls, too, Sylvester said.

“We’ll ask: ‘Hey, is everything all right? What can we do to help?’”

Consider it more of a re-calibration than a reprimand, the assistant principal said, echoing the attendance officer and deputy superintendent.

The district has been regaining its post-pandemic legs over the months as COVID has waxed and waned, Talerico said.

It closed out the last week of school this year, with 30 students and 14 staffers positive from the contagion.

Still, she said, a new variant of the virus, highly infectious, is looming. There’s also the normal angst and stresses of any new school year, in any time.

Meanwhile, the district now has “transitional specialists” — specially appointed teachers — to help with the switchover from elementary school to middle school, and middle school to high school.

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