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Column: Schools must engage remote-learning ‘truants’

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 10/3/2020 10:20:11 PM
Modified: 10/3/2020 10:20:09 PM

A recent New York Times article by Amy Goodnough describes the struggle school districts are facing tracking down remote-learning “truants” — the students who have not logged into their virtual classrooms.

The article offers a series of explanations for the thousands of students who are missing their remote-learning classes. Some couldn’t participate because they lacked high-speed internet connections or didn’t have a device capable of connecting to the platform their school is using.

In other cases, older students missed classes because they were providing child care for preschoolers or overseeing the remote learning of younger siblings so their parents can go to work. And in some instances, the students themselves were working to help support the family.

However, Goodnough overlooked one very real reason for the absences: Some students are “truant” because they realize there are no consequences if don’t attend remote classes. Based on my experiences as a high school disciplinarian in the late 1970s, I sense that this group is sizable.

I served as a high school administrator for six years, including three years as an assistant principal in a blue-collar suburban Philadelphia high school of 650 students and three years as the lone administrator in a 400-pupil regional high school in Bethel, Maine. During these years I gained an appreciation for how the world looked to the non-college-bound students who comprised the majority of the students in both schools.

Many of them felt invisible, neglected and unappreciated. These overlooked students didn’t misbehave or participate in the life of the school. They did just enough to get by. They never missed school often enough to draw attention and took only the courses they needed to graduate. Like some of the students described in Goodnough’s article, many of them helped out with child care and pitched in financially in their households — households that often lacked some of the conveniences enjoyed by their more affluent classmates in the same way that some of today’s remote-learning “truants” lack computers and internet access.

In my first year in Bethel, in 1978, the lone guidance counselor at the school went on leave in the spring. As a result, I helped students develop their schedules for the coming year. To help identify courses that might interest them, I asked them what they hoped to do once they graduated. Many had no clear picture.

But they did know how exactly long it would be until they reached the age where they no longer needed to attend school, or they knew the minimum number of courses they needed to pass in order to graduate.

They told me they just wanted to “get out of school.”

For many of these students, school was joyless. It was a place where most of their classmates and teachers failed to appreciate the hardships they experienced at home. And, in too many cases, it was a place that made them feel like failures.

Had there been something like remote learning in the late 1970s, I doubt that these disengaged students would be attending their virtual classes.

Nor would the 10% of students who were labeled “frequent flyers” for the many times they were sent to my office for misconduct or skipping class.

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and an advocate for the use of technology in education, acknowledges the limitations of the kind of remote learning we are now using in response to the pandemic. “It is clear that (online learning) will not reach everyone and it’s not just a matter of access to devices,” he wrote in a recent article on the Quartz website. “If you don’t know how to learn on your own, if you don’t know how to manage your time, if you don’t have any intrinsic motivation, you won’t be very successful in this environment.”

Once the current pandemic is over, public schools will have an opportunity to make certain that all students have that “intrinsic motivation” to learn. By personally connecting with those students who willfully avoided remote learning, it might be possible to develop individualized learning plans based on the unique skills they possess, plans designed to engage them and give them the skills that will help them no matter what direction their life takes.

Instead of promoting courses that focus on preparation for college, high schools could emphasize the interpersonal, artistic, financial and physical skills that will benefit students whether they attend college or not.

The pandemic has shown us all the importance of “essential workers” and the dignity of their jobs. But there is a gap between the skills and attributes those workers need and possess and what we emphasize in schools.

By acknowledging that gap, and striving to close it, we might be able to reengage the remote-learning truants and make school a more joyful experience for all.

Wayne Gersen, of Etna, is the former superintendent of the Dresden School District.

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