Pandemic brings struggles in Rapides’ fight against truancy

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The pandemic has changed education in Rapides parish in ways big and small, challenging everyone from teachers to students to parents and more.

For a consortium of juvenile justice and social service advocates, the pandemic has resulted in the loss of hard-earned gains against truancy. Keeping track of children who were already mostly off or just off the radar became more difficult, as did trying to help their families.

A principal had to rally faculty, students and their families to remain stable not only in the face of the pandemic, but also through more than one natural disaster that has kept them away from their rural school longer than any other in the parish.

The school district’s director of child protection and attendance took office in June 2021, more than a year after the start of the pandemic. Now, quarantine is a frequent reason given by parents who are asked why their children are not in school, she says.

Security procedures and protocols implemented by LPSS in the Learn Lafayette plan due to COVID-19.  Tuesday September 1, 2020.

Show Firm Compassion

“We really want the kids to be face to face,” said Carlessa White.

Some students have thrived with online learning, but she said most students need daily interaction with teachers. Students who learn at home have so many other distractions to keep them from furthering their education, she said.

“They are just free to roam,” she said. “But in school, it’s more supervised. The teachers supervise. The teachers teach, therefore they are engaged.”

Data from the Louisiana Department of Education shows Rapides’ attendance rate in 2019 to be 93.8%, a figure that has remained stable since 2017.

The state rate is 93.6%.

Carlessa White, director of the Rapid Schools child welfare and assistance office, said her office will work with parents who need help getting their children to school.

His office often hears about excessive unexcused absences, five or more, from schools. A letter will be sent to the parents or guardians and, if no response is received, the office absentee worker will come home. It is not unusual to learn that a child is quarantined, she said.

The district will verify this, and White has said those claims are not always true. The district will make efforts to send the children to school, but will escalate cases if necessary.

White said she tries to be compassionate. It’s part of the motto of his office: responsibility. Compassion. Equity.

COVID has made life difficult for so many people, regardless of their position in life, she said.

“With all that people are going through, I think we are even more compassionate.”

Providing help to better communities

If parents can’t provide school supplies or clothing, White said they can help. Those who do not cooperate will have their cases forwarded to Families in Need of Services (FINS).

Sometimes families move out just before that happens, White says, which she describes as frustrating.

Dasha Roberts is the director of FINS at Rapides Parish, “the arm of the juvenile court,” as 9th Judicial District Judge John Davidson described it.

It’s Roberts’ job to do whatever she can, legally, to keep the children out of her juvenile courtroom, the judge said.

The two are part of a larger group that forms My Community Cares, and Rapides is home to one of the state’s four pilot programs. This is a collaboration between the Louisiana Department of Child and Family Services, the Pelican Center, and the Rapides Juvenile Court.

Dasha Roberts, Director of Families in Need of Services, Rapides Parish

It connects and supports families with services and resources, said Destiny Fatula, Rapides coordinator. The group can visit schools, if invited, to help mentor students and have contact with their families so that their needs can be assessed.

Fatula said everyone is working in unison to help families and strengthen the community.

Success despite obstacles

For Rapides’ most rural school, K-12 Plainview High School, the pandemic was just the start of a difficult year. When schools closed on March 13, 2020, the initial thought was that the shutdown would last for two weeks so the COVID curve could be flattened.

Sonia Rasmussen, then director of Plainview, gathered her teachers and staff that afternoon. None of them could imagine that the classes would not be held, she said.

They continued to prepare lesson plans even as the district experienced downtime. After the Easter holidays, people realized that things weren’t going to be back to normal anytime soon.

The district began to shift to e-learning, providing packages or equipment to students without a home computer, adequate internet service, or internet service.

Sonia Rasmussen, former principal of Plainview High School, talks about the difficulties her school had in engaging students in their education during the pandemic and the natural disasters that followed.

When classes resumed in person in August 2020, around 100 students remained strictly virtual. But that number quickly dropped significantly, Rasmussen said.

A few weeks later, on August 27, 2020, Hurricane Laura passed through the Plainview area. Most of the community was without electricity for 23 days.

Once the power was restored, the school had to be cleaned. Although there was not much structural damage to the school, it was closed longer than any other in the parish.

Classes have resumed, but “here is hurricane number two,” Rasmussen said. Hurricane Delta followed a similar path to Laura’s when it made landfall on October 9, 2021.

“I could just see the faces of my teachers and staff, and even parents, like, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing?’ We couldn’t virtually postpone classes because we didn’t have internet access, so we were really kind of dead in the water. ”

Some students could travel to pick up packages of learning materials, but others could not because their families were saving gas for generators. This time the school was closed for almost two weeks.

Morale was low and Rasmussen tried to rally his teachers with treats, encouraging emails, or notes. She had time to reflect on the Christmas holidays and came back with a new motto: Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.

She knew that everyone would have to believe in it to get through the rest of the school year. She told them that no matter what they’ve been through, they need to let their students know how important education is to them.

“And the teachers did. They adopted it. They pushed and pushed and pushed.”

This included a final push through the ice storms of February 2021. She helped teachers call parents, stressing that children should be in school. She met with the students to review their results from previous tests, showing them how close they were to reaching the next level.

And when the results came in at the end of July, she saw it had worked. She attributes her earnings to her teachers, and some couldn’t believe what they had done.

“Because, in essence, we’ve lost almost an entire scoring period, an entire quarter. So basically we pushed four quarters into three quarters. “

Rasmussen said students in grades three to five of the school showed particular improvement. Its third-graders have ranked among the best in the district. The school got a full point on its ACT scores.

A little light in the dark

Those who work on the absenteeism problem have had some success.

Roberts, the director of FINS, remembers a former absentee who started contacting her after receiving help through My Community Cares. The student needed food and Fatula, the Rapids coordinator, brought it to him.

From there, the student began registering with Roberts when he was going to school.

Destiny Fatula, Rapides Parish Coordinator for My Community Cares

She also spoke about the mother who collapsed crying because transportation was an issue that sometimes prevented her son from going to school, so they worked with her to help him. Both mother and child have the desire to do better, she said.

“The only thing that keeps us going is,” Spears said. “The community will improve if we continue to show them that there are resources out there.”

Many parents are unaware and think the only way out is to let their kids get into trouble, he said, and the courtroom won’t fix those issues.

“It has to be a field and grassroots effort, and we have to involve the community, especially parents,” said Clifton Spears, Rapides juvenile attorney who also works with My Community Cares. “So we have to get back to family values, education is key and find a way to get these kids to believe in the American dream again.”


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