RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s state auditor and education leaders are clashing over an audit that found several school districts failed to comply with student attendance laws during the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The General Assembly directed the State Auditor Beth Wood’s office in late 2021 to conduct a performance audit that analyzed truancy policies and procedures for six public school districts in light of concerns that “missing students” stopped attending classes during the pandemic.
But the authors of the report said the analysis couldn’t be performed fully because the Department of Public Instruction failed to provide complete and accurate attendance data for five of the districts, including how many students considered chronically absent graduated or were promoted. The difficulty obtaining data contributed to the report released Thursday — more than a year after the legislative deadline, the audit said.
Wood’s office, however, said all six districts failed to perform required actions for students with three, six and 10 excused absences during the 2020-21 school year, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported. That year, many students took online classes when schools didn’t provide in-person instruction. Standardized test scores fell during the pandemic but have been recovering.
The six districts selected by Wood’s office and the Department of Public Instruction disagreed with the findings, with DPI accusing the office of failing to understand the attendance data.
“Instead of recommendations to get students back to school, our agency and six of our school districts have been unnecessarily reprimanded,” State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said in a news release. “Much of how this report was conducted is an example of how state government time and taxpayer dollars and resources should not be used.” Truitt, a Republican, and Wood, a Democrat, are elected statewide.
Students learning remotely during the period reviewed were generally marked as present if they participated in online class discussions, had a daily check-in with the teacher or completed that day’s assignments.
Auditors said they were only able to get complete information for the Henderson County Public Schools. They also examined the Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools, as well as the Johnston, Hyde and Robeson county schools.
“Auditors found that the frequency, timing, and type of truancy procedures and documentation varied widely among schools across each school district selected for this audit,” the report reads. “North Carolina’s Truancy Law was not waived during the COVID-19 pandemic or school year 2020-2021.”
The report said the data problems led to more work time by auditors, leading to $205,000 in additional costs. But DPI said the delay was caused by the auditor’s office making “multiple changes in scope and lack of understanding” of attendance policies and the wording used by districts in their student attendance policies.
Wood’s office “wasted $350,000 of COVID-19 relief funding” and educator staff time “creating a report that did not answer the questions posed by the General Assembly,” DPI said. The audit’s authors took issue with written responses made by the audit’s subjects to the findings.
The audit found that 87% of the students in the Henderson County schools identified as chronically absent during the 2020-21 school year were either promoted to the next grade or graduated from high school. Chronically absent was defined as someone who missed 10% or more of the days in which they were enrolled.
The state audit follows national reports, including those from The Associated Press, that show absenteeism rose sharply during the pandemic.