Administrators of the Vermillion School District’s two elementary schools, its middle school and its high school described steps at Monday’s Vermillion School Board that have been taken to update the district’s attendance policy as the COVID-19 pandemic is growing less severe.
“We sat down with the state’s attorney (Clay County State’s Attorney Alexis Tracy) and our group and it was a great conversation,” Jolley Elementary School Principal Samuel Jacobs told Vermillion School Board members. “I guess going back into previous positions, this is the first time we’ve had open dialogue in person with a state’s attorney, which is fantastic so we can all be on the same page.”
Jacobs said, “We’ve decided as a district that we’ll be sending out letters at five, seven and nine (days of absence) to parents regardless of whether or not it’s an excused absence or unexcused. For the two previous school years, we were kind of lax on that and we didn’t send letters home unless they were just unexcused.
“We’ve gotten back to our original mission which is just getting kids back in the building and I think that’s sometimes when you can see those letters throughout the year,” he said. “Sometimes it’s difficult to add up one or two days in September and then you get a couple more in October and November and they really do add up.”
Monday’s meeting was streamed live on the district’s You Tube channel and on Vermillion’s cable TV.
“Something that I’d like to share with the public is that if you’re communicating, our goal is not to get anybody into trouble, our goal is not to have a conflict. We just want to be able to come up with a solution on how to get children to school – whether we need to get (them) bus passes or whatever it might be,” Jacobs said. “If the student is anxious about coming to school, (he or she could) meet with our counselors or stop in and get settled indoors as soon as they get here.
“If you do receive a letter, just know that even as a principal at Jolley, I receive letters as my kids go over that five days – last year I did have one of my kids go over that and I did receive the same letter, so just know that it’s not a threatening letter by any means,” he said. “Please just keep communicating with us. That way we can ensure that your child is receiving the best education that they possibly can.”
“We know that there will be a little bit of growing pains as we transition back to our pre-pandemic attendance policy,” said Austin Elementary School Principal Kim Johnson. “As Mr. Jacobs said, we’ll work with families and our goal is to have the kids in front of us, to have the kids in front of teachers in those classrooms every day and that’s how we can best prepare them.”
“At some point are they going to be certified letters? Are they just letters that go home in the (student’s) backpack or are they mailed home, certified? What’s your approach?” asked Vermillion School Board President Rachel Olson.
“I can’t speak for the elementary (schools), but in our level, we mail them all,” said Jon Frey, principal of Vermillion High School. “They’re really just a general notification. We’re acknowledging that we’ve recorded five days of absence, seven days of absence, nine days of absence and letting the household know that as a result, when we start to get into that range where it might be close to 11 (days of absence), if we don’t understand why the student is missing or why the parent hasn’t been communicating with us as a school, then we’re starting to become more concerned as to the level of the absenteeism.
“Other than that, they’re really just meant to be notifications that we’re aware,” he said.
“And we’ll reach out to our family outreach … especially if we haven’t received any communication, just to see what’s going on,” Jacobs said. “It’s not uncommon to make home visits, either. Mr. O’Boyle (Vermillion Middle School Principal Tom O’Boyle) probably makes more home visits than anyone does with good intentions – just trying to make sure the kids are all right, make sure the family is all right and seeing whatever support we can give them.”
“I’m assuming then that after these letters are sent and the efforts for communication have been attempted, at that point later then the family will be referred to the state’s attorney?” asked school board member Carol Voss Ward. “These are all of the steps that we as a district are saying that we’ll do prior to any referral?”
“We turn all of the paperwork and copies of the letters and dates of home visits over and give that to our SROs (school resource officers) and then they take that paperwork to the state’s attorney to see if they’re going to follow up on charges,” O’Boyle said.
“We can’t emphasize the point that was made earlier – as long as the family is reaching out and communicating with us so that we understand the reasons for the absences, we’re going to work with them on that,” Frey said. “When it really becomes a concern is when we’ve had no contact from home and the child is just completely absent from the building.
“We’re not left with many choices at that point,” he said.
“If a kiddo is sick or something that way, what’s the best way to communicate that?” asked school board member Jacob Skelton. “Does that go to the principal, teacher, Facebook message – what’s the best way to get that message to the school?”
“For us, if you can call the office, great,” Frey replied. “If not, at the elementary level, if you know your classroom teacher you can email them or the principal, either one of us. The secretary – just anybody. The secretary, principal, just give us a call. We just want to make sure that everybody is all right.
“There are times when we might have a family gone for three or four days, no communication, we’re going to send someone over to their house just to make sure they’re okay,” he said. “If no one answers the door, we get concerned, just for safety.”
“That’s a good point to update that, if you (a family in the school district) does move, to let you guys know,” Skelton said.
“Most of the schools in the state have included this mission and initiative at the beginning of the fall because most schools relaxed their attendance policies, naturally, because it was needed at the beginning of the pandemic,” Superintendent Damon Alvey said. “Now, in an effort to get kids caught up and to get back to normal as much as possible, schools are returning to pre-COVID types of policies, which, of course, is what we’re doing.”
Alvey reminded the school board that parents can keep track of their child’s or children’s attendance records through an online portal. Parents will also receive a phone call through the district’s automated phone system telling them their child was not in attendance. The message will also ask the parent to contact the school with an update on the child’s status.
“There are a lot of measures in place and we’re trying to be a partner in this situation,” Alvey said. “We just want to make sure that we’re completely transparent. We just really need those kids back in their seats so that we can get those kids back in front of our great teachers.”`