When Trent Gardner gets done with school, he heads to his job at QuikTrip until 10 p.m. three days a week. Then, he does his homework and studies until early in the morning. After that, he heads to school and does it all over again.
The O.D. Wyatt High School senior does not mind having a job and said he balances it with his classwork, but it is tiring. He also had practices for the three athletic teams he was on this year and was student vice-president. It was a lot to juggle — even without a job.
The COVID-19 pandemic increased a need for workers, regardless of whether they needed to attend class. As students leave the classroom for the workforce, some teachers are noticing attendance and attention span issues. Though missing many days of school is no longer a criminal offense in Texas, districts can still refer a student to truancy court as a last resort. In the 2020-21 school year, Fort Worth ISD had 18,000 unexcused absences, according to data the Report obtained from the Texas Education Agency. Of those absences, 16,052 were among economically disadvantaged students.
The problem was severe during virtual learning last year, Jamie Avalos, a physics teacher at O.D. Wyatt High School, said. Students could easily miss class, she said, because they could not be logged in for class but contact the teacher during the day and still be counted.
This led to a lot of students choosing to, or being pressured to, work during school hours. Avalos recalls one student last year who was a good student but would miss school for months at a time. Though he would catch up, Avalos said when he was back in class she would ask where he’d been, and the student would say he was working.
Though she does not know the exact percentage, Avalos said students are experiencing chronic absenteeism. She started the year with 200 students and now has about 140. She said many times in her first period of the day — which starts at 8:25 a.m. — only about 50% of students show up.
Narieda Evans, a family communication specialist for Fort Worth ISD, said while she still sees the problem of student absenteeism, she said attendance was an issue before the pandemic. Virtual learning did not help, Evans said. However, she also said she and the rest of the department notice the need for home visits because of excessive absences is less this year.
Gardner can do a lot of his classwork online to help stay on track. Many of his teachers use Google Classroom and post assignments there, making it possible to work ahead sometime. For him, a more virtual classroom is helpful.
Evans sees an issue with students who work in fast food. Some of those students do not get off work until 11 p.m. or midnight.
“Since the pandemic, some of them have become the positive breadwinners of the family and are helping support the family income,” Evans said. “Sometimes, the parents have gone back to work and stuff like that, but they have not curtailed that on the students.”
Gardner, a senior, had some expenses come up he did not want his parents to have to pay for, he said. He got a job to help pay for his own stuff. His mom encourages him to work so he can pay for stuff without needing their help.
His attendance started to suffer, at times, but Gardner also played sports and is the class vice president. He is motivated to do well. When he noticed his attendance got low, he worked out more set hours at his job.
“My coaches helped me stay focused on school so I didn’t fall behind,” he said. “They told me that it’s good to have a job, but going to school is a little bit more important. I have my priorities in mind, but my coaches have helped me with that.”
When Evans and her colleagues visit homes, she said, many students do not want to quit their jobs and the parents support their decision. With that, there’s not much the school can do because that is a decision for the family.
In Texas, the law requires students to attend school from the age of 6 to 19. Failure to attend school used to be a criminal offense, but it was changed in 2015. Now, districts are supposed to address truancy with prevention methods, according to the Texas Association of School Boards.
District officials try to stress that students need proper rest to come to school and do a good job, Evans said. Before that can happen, though, school district staff need to get in touch with the family, which is sometimes an issue. Parents either work or the school does not have the updated phone number on file.
The students also are getting mixed messages about the policy related to working during school, Avalos said. Earlier in the semester, she said, she had a student approach her and ask to get the assignments for the rest of the week because work prevented attending school.
Avalos told the student, no, that is not allowed. She then followed up with the assistant principal, who supported her.
“She agreed that they’re actually specifically told that they can’t do that and teachers should not be accommodating it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was accommodating it just because of all the mixed messages that we’ve been getting since last year,” Avalos said.
Even students in class who work outside of school are also struggling, Avalos said. One of her students started to fall behind because she was so tired in class. The school reached out to her family, but the priority was for the student to go to work — even if it meant falling behind and missing tutorials, Avalos said.
The student ended up having to drop the class and is completing online modules to graduate on time, Avalos said.
“She was feeling very defeated all the time,” Avalos said. “So not just putting her head down because she was tired but just tuning out because she felt like she couldn’t do it. Because once you’re lost at a certain point, it’s really hard to get back on track.”
It’s hard to navigate this as a teacher, Avalos said. She admits she is “not the best” with letting the kids open up to her and typically directs them to a counselor. She wants to respect their privacy, but still help them succeed.
“You can tell the difference between ‘I’m putting my head down’ because they don’t feel like doing work today versus, ‘I’m putting my head down because I’m exhausted,’” she said. “There’s a difference that you can read with the kids or you can see a sudden drop with a student who was an A student is suddenly dropping down to an F student because they just can’t stay awake.”
Avalos understands some of the pressure for students to work comes from their families. But some employers also exacerbate the problem by scheduling students to work hours that are not appropriate for people still in school, she said. If there was some type of accountability for those employers, maybe the issue would lessen, she said.
Evans isn’t sure there is a solution the school can enact to help this issue, but she said many students do not know they can work with employers to change their availability so it does not interfere with school. She tries to work with them so they know how to have those conversations.
But some of the responsibility also falls on making sure parents understand there are laws for students being in school, and attendance affects grades, Evans said.
She understands families are under financial stress, but students will need proper rest and time in school to successfully graduate, Evans said. Aside from financial stress, she said the staff learns a lot on home visits, where they visit the family to discuss the student missing so much school. For example, a student’s parent might be sick and unable to work, but the student did not want to tell anyone, so they work to pay the bills.
Sometimes, putting food on the table is more important than attending class to a student in a struggling home.
“They don’t want to be in the dark, they don’t want the water cut off,” Evans said. “But at the same time, how do you balance the will to survive? That’s what it is, the families trying to survive.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.