To learn, children first must be in the classrooms

November 26, 2018

Once again, we are left to wonder why education — considered one of the key building blocks for more prosperous and rewarding lives — is not valued as it should be in West Virginia.

The issue most recently became apparent Nov. 15 during a meeting of the state Board of Education. Steven Paine, the West Virginia superintendent of schools, delivered some troubling information to board members — data that should be alarming to all who are concerned about whether our children are taking full advantage of their learning opportunities. Perhaps we should amend that this way: Are our children being encouraged and allowed to benefit from those opportunities?

The news from Paine was this: During the 2017-2018 year, 54,000 students enrolled in the Mountain State’s public schools missed more than 18 days of school. That means those students did not meet federal standards that require students to attend 90 percent of instructional days.

Those 54,000 students represent about a fifth of all students enrolled in public schools last year, a shameful track record.

Part of that abysmal record no doubt results from the opioid epidemic, which has left so many children without responsible supervision and guidance from their parents. For adults who have misused drugs, ensuring their children attend school often is not the highest priority. But Paine outlined what he believes are other factors involved in the high absenteeism rate. One is parents who don’t place sufficient emphasis on school attendance with their children — taking their children out of school for other purposes, such as extended vacations, for example. And school officials acquiesce to parents’ requests too often.

“That is a problem. That is a serious problem,” Paine told board members. “We provide far too many excuses for being absent from school. We have circumstances where a parent wants to bring a student to school a week late for summer vacation. Wait a minute — that’s not acceptable.”

He’s correct.

School calendars are usually set months in advance. Parents should heed them and make their vacation plans accordingly. Sure, vacations are fun and themselves can provide valuable learning experiences, depending on the activities involved. But a child’s education is even more important, and students can’t learn if they are not in the classroom.

In line with that, school officials should stand firm regarding requests for excused absences. Sickness, family emergencies and a death in the family are suitable reasons for excused absences. But most other circumstances are not.

Paine also pinpointed another issue, noting that the state’s schools have teachers “whose attendance rates are not much better than the students’.” He described that as totally unacceptable, too, citing the financial strain that puts on county school systems. Some, he said, have seen expenses triple for substitute teachers.

Teachers and teacher groups often cite their dedication to education and teaching children. But just as students can’t learn when they aren’t in class, neither can teachers teach when they are absent.

Paine says he plans to create a task force later this year to address the absenteeism issue. But parents, teachers and school administrators shouldn’t wait for a task force’s findings. They already have the wherewithal to reduce absenteeism — if they choose to place the proper emphasis on the value of children being in the classroom so learning can take place.

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