Corrected: This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of the Chester School District in New Jersey.
Each day, students and parents in New Jersey’s Chester schools head to the district website and fill out a link to a Google form, which indicates that the student is “present” for the day.
Administrators monitor the forms and check in with students who appear not to be engaged. They’ve been lenient so far with anyone who turns in their form after the 9 a.m. deadline.
Attendance is one of the many facets of K-12 education that has changed dramatically as the novel coronavirus pandemic has forced the majority of U.S. schools to close buildings and deliver instruction remotely.
Typically, taking attendance is simply a matter of asking, is the student in the building or not? With most school buildings closed, it’s now represented by a more amorphous set of factors: whether the student is engaged in learning, completing assignments on time, staying in touch with teachers.
That atmosphere has created quite a bit of confusion for Chester’s school leaders, who are considering eliminating the Google form requirement. The information schools collect can provide valuable context about how they’re serving students remotely. But it’s a time-consuming task for families, particularly those with multiple students under one roof.
Brad Currie, the district’s director of planning, research, and evaluation, worries that revising the policy would confuse parents even more. His team decided this week to stay the course for now. “Whatever we can do to not stress people out,” he said.
Emphasizing Leniency, Flexibility
The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to report chronic absence data as a measure of school quality. During COVID-19, though, several states have given schools flexibility to decide whether and how to take attendance. State governments in Colorado and Oklahoma, among others, have suspended requirements that schools report attendance numbers to them, but encouraged attendance tracking for districts’ own purposes. Kentucky has pushed schools to focus on project completion dates rather than instructional time.
Florida schools are tapping into the technical infrastructure of the state-funded Florida Virtual School to keep tabs on students’ progress. New Jersey hasn’t issued any attendance guidance, Currie said.
Many districts have simply stopped taking attendance altogether, or focused on preparing teaching materials and getting students access to technology before determining whether they were using it. Georgia, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., have declared that all students will be marked “present” for the rest of the school year.
Researchers at the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education have been tracking district approaches to a variety of topics, including attendance. Fourteen of the 82 districts in the current iteration of the center’s survey have attendance tracking systems in place, as do half of the 18 charter management organizations in the center’s analysis.
Some districts are taking attendance but emphasizing leniency, especially when using completion of assignments as an attendance tracking approach. Angola High School in Indiana, for instance, is giving students two days after an e-learning assignment is posted to attempt to complete it. “Students may not understand the material and may have questions, and we want to create a culture where students will attempt the work,” said Travis Heavin, the school’s principal.
Schools that already use learning platforms that report student logins and participation to teachers are ahead of the curve. But “it’s not a proxy for whether they’re learning or not, or whether they’re necessarily engaged,” said Susan Patrick, president and CEO of the Aurora Institute, an advocacy and research organization for online learning. “We don’t want students to be logged in necessarily to a single platform for eight hours a day.”
Teachers at Woodside Elementary School in Sussex, Wis., are giving students daily assignments, such as a trivia question or a drawing activity, that they complete as an indication of their attendance for the day. If the school records that a student misses that assignment three days in a row, administrators try to reach the family.
“The least of our concerns is being very stringent that a kid has to be in front of their computer from this time to this time,” said James Edmond, Jr., the school’s principal.
Students who have struggled with attendance prior to the pandemic are continuing to do so, Edmond said. Other students are missing assignments if they or their parents don’t understand how to access virtual lessons. “If they don’t know what to do, and it’s too frustrating for them, they just say, ‘You know what, forget it,’” Edmond said.
Measuring Online Engagement
Some educators and policymakers have been looking for lessons learned from state policies around virtual schools, which have been teaching students remotely far longer than most traditional public schools. A Wisconsin statute for online schools, for instance, requires that schools notify a parent or guardian when a student has failed to respond appropriately to a school assignment from a staff member within five school days. In Oklahoma, virtual schools are required by law to measure attendance by considering factors such as “online logins to curricula or programs, offline activities, completed assignments and testing.”
But measuring engagement time online can be an imprecise science, said Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University’s College of Education and Human Development. A student might have schoolwork open in one window while spending more time on social media or a game in another window. Virtual schools that have quantified attendance as “one interaction per week” fall well short of ensuring students are engaged, he said.
Virtual schools’ attendance monitoring methods have also been controversial. A 2016 Education Week investigation found that some virtual schools have a low bar for marking students present, which means attendance numbers don’t reflect students’ academic progress.
Miron thinks many traditional public schools, which have lower average class sizes than virtual schools, are well-positioned to keep students on track remotely, once they get procedures in order. “I have confidence that with some training, for a class of 25 to 30 students, you can have face-to-face contact with them,” he said.
Why Attendance Matters
There are myriad reasons why students may not be virtually attending classes during the COVID-19 crisis. Some lack access to Wi-Fi or digital devices. Others are more focused on basic necessities like getting food or taking care of siblings while parents are still at work.
Many schools are struggling to reach students who have not been engaged in learning since the pandemic hit, Education Week reported this week. Among more than 1,000 teachers who answered a nationwide survey this month from the Education Week Research Center, an average of 21 percent of their students have been “essentially truant” or unreachable during COVID-19 closures.
Some districts, like Los Angeles Unified, have connected with most middle and high school students but still struggle to reach elementary students. The average truancy rate was highest among students in middle school classes, according to EdWeek Research Center surveys of teachers.
Schools, and students, need time and districtwide policies to “figure out what the new routines are, and to make sure that they’re healthy and well,” Patrick said. She compares the traditional model of taking attendance to the “factory model of punching a time card,” which doesn’t take into account the quality of a student’s learning experience.
Attendance monitoring might seem like too much of a logistical hassle for schools and parents when students are learning from home, but it may prove valuable once school buildings reopen, said Bree Dusseault, practitioner-in-residence for the Center for Reinventing Public Education.
“This attendance data is going to be very important for future teachers to know what students had access to, and it’s also going to be important for making sure that we don’t lose whole cohorts of students,” Dusseault said.
All districts should be keeping records of students’ engagement with learning materials, though not with a goal of administering consequences or punishment, she said. Teachers who inherit students who were affected by the pandemic will benefit from records of which students were able to participate, and which ones struggled to engage.
Schools that already had systems in place to keep in touch with families by phone or email will have an easier time tracking virtual attendance, Dusseault said. For those that did not have measures in place, she recommended that now is a perfect time to start developing that infrastructure.
With everything from graduation requirements to testing protocols shifting rapidly to accommodate the urgency of the pandemic, schools are now focusing more on whether students are learning than whether they’re merely present, according to Patrick.
“Maybe this is an opportunity to really consider what we are taking attendance for,” she said.