McGee: N.S. high school attendance down, some students giving up

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – The halls are empty these days at North Smithfield High School, and it’s not because the teachers and administrators are quarantined, or aren’t ready to teach.

According to Principal Timothy McGee, less and less students are attending the school for in-person learning, despite the massive year-long effort to keep classrooms open.

“Students are deciding to just not come to school,” McGee told members of the School Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 9.

McGee attributed that drop in attendance to several factors. When the school saw an increase in cases of COVID-19 around the holidays, many of the students who had been attending in person moved to distance learning.

“They’re continuing to do distance learning even though the numbers are going down,” McGee said.

Athletes, meanwhile, have been opting for distance learning in recent days over concerns that they may have to quarantine for two weeks if they’re exposed to the virus – when the entire sports season has been abbreviated to only six weeks long.

Other kids, McGee noted, seem to only show up when they feel like it, sometimes opting to sleep in instead, and log on for their assignments.

“Students are deciding to just not come to school,” he said.

“Bottom line is, my building doesn’t have anywhere near the students it would normally have,” McGee said.

“The hybrid program wasn’t intended for them to have the option to just stay home because they feel like it,” the principal said. “We’re just seeing students, more and more, that are just kind of apathetic. It’s something we haven’t dealt with at this magnitude before.”

The principal’s concerns come even as educators at the school have been more lenient in light of the pandemic, giving students every possible chance to complete their coursework.

On Tuesday, committee members approved a change to graduation requirements, lowering the passing grade from a 70 to a 65 under recommendation of Asst. Supt. Clare Arnold.

School Committee Chairman James Lombardi asked Arnold if the change in standard would be permanent.

“We are putting it in the policy, so it would be moving forward, however, it would be something we discuss as a leadership team,” Arnold replied. “We may come back to you in a year or sooner.”

Lombardi asked that the change be reviewed in six months.

Senior projects have also been modified to make them easier to complete, with small changes like allowing a relative to serve as the required mentor.

“We always have such high standards at the school, and everyone’s expected to meet those standards,” McGee said. “Now we’re just seeing students kind of giving up. I’m sure it has to do with this whole pandemic and lack of socialization.”

The lack of attendance, McGee noted, becomes a problem for things like lunches, where students currently have assigned seats, and a kid might find himself eating alone.

The edict, meanwhile, to stay home if you’re not feeling well, makes it difficult to enforce any real policy.

“It’s just a tough situation,” McGee said. “I know kids. I remember vividly being a kid, and if I had the extra option, on a day when I was a little tired, of getting an extra hour of sleep, I might do the same thing. I think that’s part of the problem.”

Issues such as student discipline, meanwhile, have faded from the forefront amid the challenge of pandemic altered education.

“Behavior wise, they’re excellent,” McGee said of the students. “It’s almost scary.”

The principal said that Asst. Principal Steven Boss, who normally handles discipline, has instead taken on the role of a counselor, spending his days reaching out to parents to try to get kids to stay on schedule.

McGee noted the attendance issue will also become a challenge as the school looks to increase in-person schooling to four days a week for seniors, an effort that could move forward as soon as the week after February vacation.

“I just want to know the exact number of students that I have coming so I can safely put them where they need to be,” McGee said.

Supt. Michael 
St. Jean noted that it will be tough to move forward with increased classroom instruction for seniors without consistency, and a commitment to either in-person or distance learning from the students.

“It does effect some of the planning,” St. Jean said.

McGee said he plans to send a letter to parents on the issue in the upcoming weeks.

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