Pittsburgh Public Schools sent nearly 1,000 students to truancy court during COVID

Despite calls for leniency, truancy referrals kept coming. The school district described a balancing act, but advocates and researchers are hoping for different outcomes this school year.

by TyLisa C. Johnson, PublicSource 

Last fall, the 21,000 students in Pittsburgh Public Schools faced back-to-back challenges while settling into a year of remote learning.

Instead of attending musicals or homecoming football games, students and families faced the real-world impacts of a national shutdown. As families searched for stability, students struggled to get and stay connected to online classrooms. And they had other priorities to juggle: new jobs to help their parents, mental health needs, caring for siblings or finding necessities like housing and food. Some new barriers made it difficult or impossible to show up to school.

Despite mounting barriers to virtual attendance, truancy citations summoned families and students to court, even as state lawmakers, researchers, local leaders and truancy experts urged for leniency.

Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] briefly paused truancy citations after buildings shut due to COVID but referred 952 students to court for truancy in the 2020-21 school year, according to data provided by the school district in response to a Right-to-Know request. This number does not reflect if a student was referred multiple times, which can and does happen when unexcused absences don’t stop.

Advocates note that truancy cases disproportionately involve students of color and those with disabilities. But the district said it doesn’t keep records of truancy citations broken down by race, gender or disability status, nor could it generate the records. The district isn’t required by law to track citations by group.

Parents and community members, along with PPS Board Member Pam Harbin, have raised concerns about a potential increase in absenteeism and truancy this school year because of the transition back to in-person learning, ongoing transportation woes and a controversial shift to earlier start times for high school students.

PPS says it worked to ensure schools were exhausting every effort to connect with families and address root causes of attendance barriers without court involvement, but in some cases, a court referral was the only way to engage a family.

(Illustration by Xiola Jensen/PublicSource)

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