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Despite Difficulties with Online Learning, Students and Parents Charged with Truancy

AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Parents across the country are dealing with fines and possible incarceration as a result of truancy charges against them and their children.   

In the midst of the emotional and economic fallout of the ongoing global Covid-19 crisis, many households find themselves in hot water with district truancy offices, despite understandable claims of technical and mental health issues.  


Speaking with, Tracie Higgins of Manitowoc, Wisconsin said that police came to her house in November, the day before Thanksgiving, with a $439 fine because her son Mark had missed too many days of virtual learning. But as Tracie explained in an earlier interview, the absences were due to technical problems, not neglect by her son or herself. 

Saying of her frustrating experience, “I called the school numerous times and told them that [Mark] was having issues with his Chromebook. I got notices over the phone, automated, and we got emails and text messages stating that my son was not in school or he wasn’t doing the virtual school, which I knew he was.”

Tracie is not alone in her annoyance. Debra Pratt, another parent from Manitowoc, reported similar issues with charges of truancy, telling Wisconsin’s WFRV Local 5 news, “I think it’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous, especially during a pandemic when there’s just too many other factors that are playing into this… Placing a truancy fine on [students] is certainly not going to help the situation or make it any better.”


Neither is this issue limited to one Wisconsin town, as Pennsylvania’s KDKA Local 2 news has reported that Pittsburgh public schools have likewise issued multiple truancy citations to students. 

Sharon Austin, a parent of two such Pittsburgh school district students, lamented on the impact virtual learning has had on her two daughters. “My daughters were both straight-A students,” said Sharon, “and now they are failing. They have Es on their report cards.” 

Ciara Austin, Sharon’s daughter, provided the reason for her absences and subsequent academic decline, saying, “I can’t get into the account. The computers won’t let me in. I can’t get to the teachers and say, ‘Hey, I’m here.’”

While each state in the Union implements their own specific statues and responses to truancy, broadly speaking, when a student is truant, meaning he or she has been absent from school without an excuse for some period of time, district officials such as the police, truancy officers, counselors, or judges have the authority to invoke various forms of punishment on both the truant child and their parent(s).


Even before the pandemic, truancy offices were imperfect at best, often forcing young teens into the legal system and disproportionally effecting single parents. (Vice President Kamala Harris, herself, faced much criticism early on the campaign trail for her role in instituting stricter truancy laws while serving as California AG.)

But now, over a year into a global pandemic, with families continuing to suffer mentally and financially, truancy citations and fines are simply exacerbating an already tenuous situation for many households. 

It is not the case that these parents across the country don’t understand the value of their children attending school, but given the circumstances of a global health crisis, the added pressure on parents and students is far from helpful, especially given the entirely new educational experience families are traversing and the second order technical and mental health consequences of learning from home. 

As for their part, schools and school districts have responded to these reports stressing that any fines issued will be forgiven if the child returns to school regularly, and that claims of technical issues are investigated before charges are brought.

In response, Tracie Higgins had this to say. “Ya, they are giving the kids an incentive that, ‘OK, if you do nine weeks of school and pass all of your classes the fine goes away,’ but that’s not the point. The point is they shouldn’t have to give these fines out to these kids – especially now.”


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