Present and accounted for? Coronavirus-related school closures create attendance challenges

Monitoring how long students are logged in, asking them to answer a daily question or having them participate in an online discussion thread are among the common ways to take attendance in an online class. 

But now with most students across the U.S. unexpectedly transitioning to virtual learning due to the spread of COVID-19, determining how many are maintaining a school routine will be among the many challenges for state and district leaders. 

“For schools across the country that already had students learning in a blended environment, this transition — it’s not easy, but they are more prepared,” says Bruce Friend, chief operating officer of the Aurora Institute, formerly the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

It’s one thing to enroll in an online class or a virtual school at the start of a semester or school year, where the expectations and attendance procedures are communicated up front. But it’s quite another for both teachers and families to be forced into an online learning arrangement in which districts might be using different methods for teaching and taking attendance. 

“I don’t think we have good metrics on what constitutes chronic absence in an online learning system,” says Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a research and advocacy organization that has brought national attention to the chronic absence issue, particularly in the early grades. 

In Ohio, where schools are closed at least through April 3, the state education agency has already acknowledged that monitoring who is and isn’t signing in to learn will be a challenge.

“We recognize that attempting to track student attendance under such circumstances would be extremely complicated,” according to the department’s website. “Consequently, students will be deemed to be in attendance during the non-spring-break periods included in the three-week closure.”

‘Most likely to be impacted’

Because most states include data on chronic absenteeism as part of their accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the U.S. Department of Education has also indicated it would “consider a one-year waiver to exclude this indicator” from states’ systems.

“This indicator is perhaps the most likely to be impacted by COVID-19 due to school closures or student absences,” according to the department’s fact sheet.

Some districts, such as Fulton County Schools in Georgia, have opted not to require attendance for the time being. Meanwhile, FCS Superintendent Mike Looney has asked teachers and families to post examples of how they’re spending their day, with the Twitter handle #FCSrising.

Coaches posting online workouts, a teacher leading a sing-a-long via Zoom and parents sharing photos of their children at the dining room table with laptops open were among the tweets in the thread. 

Some virtual learning models track how long students are logged in to the platform — which is similar to seat time in a traditional classroom. But Friend suggests this approach sends the “wrong message.”

“A really good online course shouldn’t have me sitting in front of the computer all day,” he says. “You’ve got to get the students offline as much as you do online.”

Other methods focus more on the completion and quality of the work being submitted, which can then raise questions about how much help the student received with the assignment. But Friend suggests the “authenticity of the work is no more foolproof online than it is in the classroom.”

The key, he adds, is “good online course design” and regular contact between teachers and students.

Alisa Belzer, an education professor at Rutgers University, says K-12 teachers can learn from those who teach online in higher education. 

“When instructors stay on top of evaluating the work they are asking learners to complete, they can easily determine who is ‘there’ and who’s not. A key ingredient in this process is creating engaging assignments with clear deliverables,” she says. “When instructors give feedback that is specific, clear and actionable, students know their instructors are very much a part of their learning process. This also encourages ‘attendance.’”

Whatever method process teachers use to record their students’ participation in class, Chang says maintaining a relationship is important.

“I very much think that whatever we do, we need to make sure teachers are checking in with students virtually — either by computer or by phone,” she says. “I think students will even more need to be able to have contact with an adult to support their learning, to ask questions and to feel like it is worth continuing to learn.”

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