Addressing Attendance Barriers (‘Truancy’)

Welcome to ELC’s portal for all things attendance and truancy. Below you’ll find links to information, parent resources, and publications relating to attendance barriers, absenteeism, and the truancy system in Pennsylvania.

The Basics

Pennsylvania requires that all students go to school from age 6 until age 18 or graduation. This period is called “compulsory school age.” Legal consequences can arise when students have unexcused absences. If a student accrues three unexcused absences, they are considered “truant” under the law. If a student has six or more unexcused absences, they are considered “habitually truant” under the law. Schools must take steps to improve attendance for students who are habitually truant, including holding attendance improvement conferences to identify and address the reason for absences.

As COVID-19 continues, schools are still legally required to protect students’ rights and work with families to improve school attendance and participation, regardless of whether students are learning in-person, through a hybrid model, or virtually. If these steps are taken and attendance does not improve, parents and students can face serious legal consequences, including fines and jail time. While ELC disagrees with these consequences, the law allows schools and decision-makers to impose them.

While there is limited research regarding racial disparities in truancy involvement overall, it is well documented that punishments imposed following non-attendance are disproportionately applied to Black and Brown students. For example, Black, Asian, and Latinx students are more likely to receive a second truancy petition than white youth, and Black youth are twice as likely to be adjudicated dependent for not attending school than their white peers. Families of color are also more likely to encounter barriers to getting schools to keep accurate attendance records as is required by law. They are more likely to come into contact with systems of child welfare and face fines, fees, and jail time as a result of disparate enforcement of compulsory school law and penalties. ELC has been involved in cases where responses to non-attendance of students of color are disproportionately harsher – such as imposing sanctions of jail time, swifter referrals to dependency court, referrals of youth to residential placement, and heightened police interaction with families.

What’s New?

Changes to Pennsylvania’s compulsory school law went into effect during the 2020-2021 school year. Now, all children in Pennsylvania must start school no later than age 6 and remain in school until graduation or age 18, whichever is sooner.

Schools are required to take attendance, track student participation, and enforce compulsory school laws during COVID-19. Schools may be using different policies to track attendance and participation if students are learning virtually or hybrid. In addition, some schools have expanded the ways that families can submit excuse notes for absences including through text or internet-based forms. Check out your school’s website for information about how attendance will work this year, what attendance policies may apply to your child, and whether changes have been made due to the pandemic.

To learn more, check our new series of Attendance Barrier Screening Tools that help families, schools, and Magisterial District Court judges ‒ the three key players in the truancy context ‒ identify and address attendance barriers while upholding the legal rights of students and families. If your family or your child age 15 or older has been invited to a School Attendance Improvement Conference with the school, consider completing the Family Screening Tool so that your school can identify and address attendance barriers.