Petersburg schools concerned about spreading trend of travel-fueled absenteeism

Petersburg's high school
Petersburg’s high school (File/KFSK)

There’s no question about it: Travel is back. As the pandemic fades, Americans are going on business trips, flying to conferences, and going on vacation. In Southeast Alaska, families routinely fly out of town for sports or doctor visits — or just to visit somewhere less cold and rainy. But a surge in travel has Petersburg’s teachers and administrators worried that students are falling behind.

School administrators in Petersburg have been alarmed this year by how many families are taking extended vacations outside of school breaks. Middle and high school principal Ambler Moss put it this way during a recent school board work session.

“We already had a culture of absenteeism, all the travel from trips,” Moss said. “But post COVID, that it unleashed that ferocity of travel, you know, the addiction to: ‘I gotta get off the island, I gotta go somewhere, anywhere.’ And I’m concerned that it’s been now normalized, and we’re not gonna get the genie back in the bottle.”

Administrators say it’s hard on kids and on teachers, who have to help kids make up what they’re missing in the classroom. The school doesn’t have hard limits on how many days kids can miss. But they have asked a handful of families to leave the school this year because their kids were missing too much school for travel.

And aside from the practical problems with getting kids caught up, administrators are concerned that absences could keep kids from meeting new state standards. The Alaska READS Act this fall will require extra testing and instruction for kids who are falling behind in reading.

Moss says he’s worried that all these absences are impacting the quality of teaching in Petersburg classrooms — for all kids, not just the ones missing school.

“My concern is, is that much absence is also getting baked into the cake where teachers are, consciously or otherwise, lowering standard to some extent in order to make it doable for everybody,” Moss said.

Administrators say they understand the value of trips, family time, and traveling during off-season. But they want to reduce absences.

Research shows that missing school for any reason hurts kids academically. Kids who miss at least 10% of their school days — that’s about three weeks for Petersburg’s students — are at risk for a number of problems later in life. Those kids are more likely to fall behind or drop out. As adults, they’re more likely to be poor, to have poor health, and to be arrested or in prison. In Petersburg, there are 172 days of school, so that means if kids miss more than 17 days of school total, they are at risk.

Missing school also affects kids socially at a time when youth mental illness is spiking. Research shows that kids who miss a lot of school are more likely to feel alienated and to stop trying to connect with other kids. Superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter says teachers have seen this when kids leave for long vacations.

“We do have teachers talk about that,” Kludt-Painter said. “Kids are gone for two or three weeks. They come back, they’re just like, ‘I don’t have a clue what’s going on in my room.’ People are all moving onto this — they’ve lost a friend maybe over that amount of time. Groups have changed. They have a hard time reintegrating.”

Kludt-Painter says part of Petersburg’s problem is because of how school policy defines “excused” and “unexcused” absences. Right now, when kids miss school for medical reasons, travel for sports, or for most pre-approved vacations, those absences are considered excused. According to state law, kids can be suspended or expelled if they have too many unexcused absences. But Alaska requires districts to set their own definitions for what kinds of absences are considered excused or unexcused.

“I think we’re a district that shows no chronically absent students, because of the way certain things are coded,” Kludt-Painter said. “And yet we have people on three-week trips in addition to, you know, x, y and z. So it’s this conversation about what does it mean to be excused? And what does it mean to be unexcused? Does it mean that they make things up? They don’t make things up? Are we expected to provide those things for families or not? Are we expecting students to come back with a pile of completed work after going to Tahiti?”

Kludt-Painter says the district may change what kinds of absences are considered unexcused. They may start excusing only a certain number of days of vacation time during the school year. And, there may be limits on how much teachers are obligated to do extra work to help kids catch up when they’re past that limit. Any changes like this would be made through modifications in the school handbook. The superintendent and administration can make those changes.

The school board has discussed changing the school calendar dramatically to adjust to the times families tend to take off — usually after the winter holidays, when flights are cheaper. That might help families keep their kids in school for more days.

But Kludt-Painter says they’ll likely hold off on changes for next school year’s calendar.

And school board President Sarah Holmgrain says the school needs to follow the community’s lead on any big changes.

“We could try and design a calendar ad nauseam,” Holmgrain said. “We could try and change all this. But if you don’t have buy-in from your community in its public school, and what’s important, then I feel like we’re spinning our wheels. Especially we have families that are like, ‘Nope, I’m taking six weeks off.’ And so their priorities are different than ours.”

Kludt-Painter says this issue is not one unique to Petersburg. In a recent meeting with superintendents throughout Southeast Alaska, she said classroom attendance was a hot issue.

“About half of the superintendents there, half the group put absenteeism and attendance as an issue and a concern to address,” Kludt-Painter said. “So we’re not alone in this.”

Kludt-Painter says the board will likely continue to discuss attendance at every meeting for the foreseeable future.

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