‘Relationships matter’: Remote learning places new hurdles in fight against chronic absenteeism

When students at El Puente M.S. 50 Community School in Brooklyn, New York, log into Zoom at 8:30 a.m. each school day, they’re greeted by a remote school coach who takes attendance, checks in with students and stays online with them throughout the entire school day, even as teachers come and go.

“Every time the bell rings, there’s a little transition time where the coach does some more community building like, ‘Hey, great job in ELA class. I really liked your participation,’” said Principal Ben Honoroff.

Then, the coach preps students for the next class and introduces the incoming teacher with a theme song — something akin to the walk-up songs for baseball players at the New York Yankees stadium. And if any student is late to school or drops off halfway through the day, the coaches are texting parents to see what’s up.

These strategies — the addition of coaches and hosting students in one Zoom session all day, rather than having them switch in between classes — came after lessons learned in the spring, when student attendance was inconsistent based on time of day and subject area. School leaders realized they needed to do more to keep students engaged.

The approach seems to be working for El Puente M.S. 50, which has seen “significantly higher” online attendance this fall, compared to the spring, Honoroff said. 

And on the day he talked to Education Dive, the school had 100% attendance — not an easy feat in the remote learning era of COVID-19, where access to Wi-Fi, technology hiccups, family situations and other factors exacerbated by the pandemic have seen students drop off from participating in online learning, worrying education advocates and administrators alike about increased levels of chronic absenteeism at a time with little oversight and uniformity in how schools are keeping track of attendance. 

No standard metric

“In the past, everyone kind of knew what it meant for a kid to be in school or not,” said Hedy Chang, executive director and president of Attendance Works, an organization that aims to advance student success and close equity gaps by reducing chronic absenteeism. “You’re in school because your body is in the classroom and someone saw you.”

Attendance was such a “common sense” metric, she said, that many states included chronic absenteeism as an accountability measure under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and reported data on the number of students missing 10% of school days or more in an academic year.

Schools received a waiver for this metric from the U.S. Department of Education in the spring, yet no waiver has been granted this fall.

“Accountability works when everybody is doing the same thing, and you’re holding them accountable for it. We don’t have standard measures of attendance anymore, and that makes accountability harder,” Chang said.

Now, there are huge variations in how states and districts are determining whether students are present or absent from school on a given day, she said.

At El Puente M.S. 50, students have to attend classes for the whole day — 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. — in order to be counted present, just as they would if they were attending school in-person, Honoroff said.

Yet in many cases, attendance is more complicated.

Low bars with few exceptions

“When the new school year started, there was a real emphasis on making sure that attendance was being tracked, but there’s a lot of challenges on how to do that especially in a remote setting, but also in a hybrid setting,” said Phyllis Jordan, the editorial director for FutureEd, a think tank in the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. “Are the students logged in to a computer? Are they participating in a live, synchronous class, or are they turning in assignments?” 

In their reopening plans for this school year, states took a variety of approaches, Jordan said.

For example, in Connecticut, which has issued statewide guidance for calculating attendance, students are counted as being “in attendance” if their total time spent in either synchronous virtual classes, synchronous virtual meetings, time logged in electronic systems or assignment submission/completion is equal to at least half of the school day. 

Students in District of Columbia Public Schools in Washington, D.C., must do at least one activity in Canvas each school day between 6 a.m. and 11:59 p.m. — whether that’s logging in, clicking on a link, opening a course or working on an assignment in the system — to be marked as present.

Ohio education officials have allowed schools to use assignment completion as a metric for attendance. So, if a student turns in a project, such as a diorama, that was expected to take eight hours, that counts toward eight hours of attendance. 

Many state guidelines have stipulations that there be contact between students and the school, but that’s raised questions about how much contact equals being present, Jordan said. 

“If a teacher calls a student or a student calls a teacher and leaves a message, is that contact? I think not,” she said. “But if there is an actual conversation, does it have to be a one-minute conversation, does it have to be a 10-minute conversation? So, states are trying to figure that out.”

Other places are not tracking attendance at all for students who are learning remotely. Chang said, according to her organization’s analysis, fewer than half of states are mandating daily attendance right now, compared to pre-COVID days when all states required daily attendance-taking. And some states are counting students present during remote learning whether they show up to class or not.

“We have low bars for attendance-taking in most places — there are a few expectations, I think Connecticut is one of the exceptions — which means that if you have low bars, you don’t notice that they’re absent,” Chang said. 

This matters, her organization maintains, because absenteeism is a leading indicator and cause of educational inequity and an early indicator that positive learning conditions are missing — whether it be academic, health and safety, or a sense of belonging and support.

‘Kids want to be part of something’

“One of the things we know is that relationships matter hugely, said Natasha Ushomirsky, state director for Massachusetts at Education Trust, which facilitates the work of the Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership. “Schools that had stronger relationships with their students and families saw a lot less of that disconnection kind of problem than schools that did not.”

If a school’s first call to a parent during a pandemic is to ask why their child isn’t logging into online classes, that’s not going to go over well with families, she said, adding, “Relationships matter.”

That’s something Erica Forti, superintendent of East Haven Public Schools in Connecticut, has prioritized over the last few years, as she’s overseen a decrease in chronic absenteeism from 15.7% in 2016-17 to 10.7% in 2019-20, according to figures provided by the district.

Forti personally makes phone calls to families and tries to get to know them and any issues they might be facing that are impacting their kids’ attendance. She also has a dedicated attendance team that makes house calls, if necessary.

“You don’t know why unless you actually take the time and do the diligence, reaching out and connecting with these families and getting to the underlying root cause of why they’re not engaging,” said Forti.

Many of those strategies have carried over into the remote learning era, as well, and building relationships with families has been paramount, she said. “Nine times out of 10, you can fix the problem.”

It’s also been the most successful strategy for El Puente M.S. 50 to combat absenteeism. In addition to livening up class transitions with music throughout the day, remote coaches are celebrating students’ birthdays, and the school’s dean is hosting a virtual dance party at lunch.

“We’ve really put a lot of time and thought into how to build remote community,” Honoroff said. “My hypothesis would be that if we’re just having kids turning in an assignment to get counted for their attendance, they’re going to actually have less attendance. Kids want to be part of something.”

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