Pandemic Perspectives: Zooming into the Homes of Baltimore’s Chronically Absent Students

By Zoe James-Collins, University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts Student Fellow (2020-2021)

During a typical year, Baltimore students face challenges that prevent them from regularly attending school or turning in assignments. We are keenly aware of the role transportation plays in chronic absenteeism. We are also familiar with the socioeconomic plights that impact attendance: poverty, physical and mental health, and family responsibilities, among others. This school year, having been orchestrated virtually through Zoom, one might think attendance should be a non-issue: all that students have to do is simply click on a link to attend class. This is a misguided assumption I’ve heard often over the last year in response to my mentioning the CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP).

Participating in TCP during the COVID-19 pandemic, however, has provided unique and intimate insights into students’ lives that faculty and CFCC Student Fellows have not had in years past; we see, first hand, some of the barriers to education that exist inside the homes of these chronically absent students.

One student who stands out to me is a middle schooler who, despite all the pre-teen angst and pressure, always has a smile on his face—when he is on camera. He is a solid conversationalist who should, and it appears that he would, thrive at school among his peers. He has no issue communicating when he needs help or expressing what his problem areas and strengths are, and he regularly shares ideas he has learned in school with an appreciation that captures his great sense of curiosity.

There have been several instances in our restorative practice circles where this student has shown up and participated enthusiastically in the conversations, but then he has muted his mic or turned off his camera because his little sister is climbing on top of him, demanding his attention. His instinct is pure: to take care of her and to calm her down. When he has tried to push her away or focus on the session, she returns the gesture with playful bites, leaving him no choice but to succumb to her needs.

This student has shared that he is the oldest of nine siblings. He likes helping out with his sister because he knows how important it is to set a good example for her, and he has shared that it will be good practice for when he has a daughter one day. Prioritizing his sister’s needs above his own seems to be a regular practice for him while learning from home. I am not suggesting this student is his sister’s caretaker—I do not know much more about his familial situation than I have shared here and what I have witnessed during our weekly sessions—but what I am suggesting is that this scenario captures a theme we have observed among many of our TCP participants this year. Privacy is a luxury to which many students lack regular access.

With nine siblings in his house, several of whom are also probably attending Zoom school, this child is destined for days where signing into class or staying engaged is not a realistic option. It is one thing to hear the excuse from a student, “I couldn’t do my homework last night because I was busy with my sister,” but to actually witness the extent that this student goes—and many students like him, I am sure—is an opportunity that could remold society’s misperceptions of truant students.

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