Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Remote Learning Cuts Into Attendance. Here Are Remedies

Data suggest low-income communities are much harder hit than high-income ones
By Heather C. Hill — December 03, 2020 5 min read
Illustration of a classroom with students and teachers operating from remote spaces.
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I know a 10-year-old—social, responsible—who went AWOL for the first two weeks of school this fall. It’s easy to imagine a scenario like that playing out in thousands of remote schooling households across the country: K-12 students “stopping out” or dropping out by not attending class or completing assignments. In school buildings, students mostly must remain physically present once they arrive. But when students learn at home, they have opportunities to disengage just about hourly: from that synchronous session at 9 a.m., from the division of fractions video at 10 a.m., and from the essay for English class that is supposed to be in a Google doc by noon.

My 10-year-old friend had a teacher who called home and got him back on track. In many cases, though, it will take more than that.

Unsurprisingly, surveys and district data show that remote attendance has flagged. In May, less than 10 percent of teachers surveyed nationally said that remote attendance approached normal attendance levels, and two-thirds reported that assignment-completion rates were down since the start of the pandemic. Cities including Detroit, Chicago, and Rochester, N.Y., have all reported lower-than-expected attendance rates this fall.
Reduced attendance might explain the negative impacts of remote schooling compared with in-person instruction. As reported in Education Week’s Weighing the Research opinion essay series earlier this year, a number of researchers have discovered that on average, achievement suffers with online classes. Recently, for example, Carycruz Bueno found that students attending public virtual schools in Georgia between 2007 and 2016 scored significantly below students in the state’s public brick-and-mortar schools on standardized tests and were 10 percentage points less likely to graduate from high school, even taking into account the different characteristics of online students.
Attendance data show a disturbingly uneven playing field. Spring login data from Zearn, an online mathematics curriculum, suggest that student-participation rates in affluent communities dipped in March but climbed back to normal by late April. However, participation rates for low-income communities never recovered, lagging behind normal by about 40 percent at the end of the spring. November data show Zearn logins in low-income communities remain about 15 percent below normal.

Zearn online math participation January to November 2020

With the number of school closures already high and rising, educators need to think strategically about both measuring and encouraging remote attendance. A look in the literature suggests several lessons.

First, bring students back to school where and when possible, prioritizing the most vulnerable students.

Second, adjust attendance early-warning metrics for COVID-19 realities and use them. Early-warning metrics are a component of many programs aimed at improving attendance and preventing dropouts, and most large U.S. school districts have some version of them.
In typical times, early-warning metrics include a battery of student indicators such as test scores, absenteeism, course grades, and credit accumulation, but some of those may not be available or equally meaningful during the pandemic. Districts may be able to gin up new metrics, though, such as measuring student-assignment completion in the virtual setting. In the Garden Grove Unified school district in California, for example, teachers record each student’s assignment completions and logins to the learning-management system daily.

Many successful programs aimed at increasing attendance focus on improving the bond between students and their school or teacher."

Harvesting data automatically generated from learning-management systems (for instance, Google Classroom, Schoology, Assistments) can fill in gaps in attendance data. Integrating data from these systems with student-information systems, which officially track attendance, can take some burden off teachers.

Third, educating parents about student absences may help. Research suggests that most parents underestimate the number of days their child has been absent; low-cost mailings correcting those estimates can improve student attendance. Moreover, using simple language in these notifications, emphasizing parental efficacy, and highlighting the negative effects of missing school can be particularly effective.

Hedy Chang at Attendance Works and others advise against taking punitive measures against students or parents since they tend not to work. A new review of the attendance literature comes to the same conclusion.

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Fourth, many successful programs aimed at increasing attendance focus on improving the bond between students and their school or teacher. In fact, the literature shows that monitoring student-absence data is by itself not enough to improve attendance; students need to want to attend. This approach takes many forms. The Check & Connect program assigns each student at risk of dropping out to a caring, committed mentor who supports and monitors that student over an extended period of time. Many other successful programs use teams of school counselors and teaching staff to spot and lower barriers to student attendance.

Because remote learning may leave some students vulnerable to mental-health concerns, districts might consider programs like Positive Action, which addresses student social-emotional skills and has adapted its offerings for COVID-19. In experimental trials, Positive Action has seen consistently encouraging results on student mental-health and achievement metrics.

Finally, in the pandemic, student-participation data can help suggest needed changes, especially when it is combined with hearing from teachers, parents, and students about barriers to remote learning. In San Francisco and other cities, for instance, districts have listened to parents and opened community hubs for students who do not have access to technology or adult supervision at home. Chang and other experts on absenteeism also advise working on the fundamentals—creating engaging and challenging remote instruction and fostering students’ sense of belonging.

The stakes are high. A McKinsey & Co. report issued over the summer predicted an increase in the dropout rate this school year of between 2 percent and 9 percent. This figure likely underestimates the increase because the report assumed that in-person instruction would resume in January 2021. Attendance and engagement with learning is a leading indicator for dropping out.

Districts have been understandably consumed by the basics: returning to school buildings, providing either hybrid or remote instruction, and managing COVID-19 cases among staff and students. But especially with hopes for in-person school dimming, now is the time to attend to attendance.

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2020 edition of Education Week as Remote Learning Hurts Attendance


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