As schools across Minnesota began distance learning nearly four weeks ago — or three, for districts that were on spring break — many have opted to ease into the new at-home format.
Understandably, students and families needed time to adapt. Some households weren’t equipped for online learning. Others had to juggle new child care and work demands.
These are the sorts of things educators are staying mindful of when it comes to tracking student absences as well.
State education officials are still asking districts to track student attendance. But they’ve granted districts more flexibility in how they do so.
“Obviously attendance is important, learning is important. That’s still very, very true,” said Wendy Hatch, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Education. “But I think our responsibility around attendance — and making sure that we’re checking in on students and hearing from students — has changed.”
Given this wiggle room, many schools have been taking a two-fold approach: marking down absences and monitoring student engagement — by tracking who’s logging in to online learning platforms, who’s turning in completed paper assignments, or who’s not communicating with their teachers at all.
This new ad hoc system relies heavily on teachers taking initiative to keep tabs on all of their students, to ensure no one falls through the cracks. And, in some cases, early attendance and engagement numbers show thousands of students are still being left behind.
‘We’ve seen a jump up in attendance’
The state’s largest district, Anoka-Hennepin Schools, sent out communication to parents asking them to self-report any excused student absences — for things like an illness or a family emergency — during distance learning.
By this measure, less than 1 percent of students, districtwide, were marked absent during the entire first week, from March 30 to April 3.
“Then, our assumption is — as we’re providing instruction and they’re participating — that they’re present,” Superintendent David Law said in an interview last Thursday.
The district isn’t a 1-to-1 device district, but it still had enough technology available to outfit all students, grades K-12 (with the youngest students, in grades K-2, having just received their devices last Tuesday).
As students complete coursework or engage in classes through online learning platforms, teachers are able to see who is logging in and completing assignments. Using this capability, Law says the district is also tracking student engagement.
While those numbers are still being collected, at the district level, Law anticipates they’ll see close to 96 percent of students logging in on a daily basis — a better turnout than the 90-92 percent daily attendance rate they typically see under normal conditions, he said. That might be explained by the fact that distance learning offers students greater flexibility, since they’re not bound to normal school hours, Law said, adding: “There’s a lot less they can be doing” right now.
For students who are still participating in school through a paper-and-pencil alternative format, teachers are simply tracking engagement based upon the school work they they complete and turn in.
The district still has attendance secretaries working at each school building. Teachers can lean on them, along with school school social workers, to help follow up with students who aren’t logging in. For instance, some schools have set up Google documents, by grade level, to keep tabs on students, using them to flag students in need of a follow-up call.
“Our assumption is always those parents and students are willing, but there are some challenges,” Law said, adding the focus is on helping them get connected or engaged.
Under normal circumstances, 15 consecutive absences would result in a drop from enrollment — and a drop in per-pupil funding.
This rule still applies under distance learning — but state officials are far less concerned with capturing truant students during this period.
“We’re asking school districts to be more gentle with pursuing truancy,” Hatch said.
Focusing on engagement data
Minneapolis Public Schools has built out its attendance record-keeping to track students who are caught in limbo — those waiting for a device or other materials, so they can engage in distance learning — along with those who are participating in distance learning each day.
On students’ first day of distance learning, April 6, more than 3,000 students were still marked as “waiting on materials.” By April 16, that count had only dropped to 2,777 students.
The district is also tracking student absences, though this data point isn’t as clearcut as it would be normally.
“It could be a teacher marking a student ‘unexcused’ or a parent calling,” says Colleen Kaibel, director of student retention and recovery for the district, noting those calls range from excused absences for things like illness to a notice that their child can’t do school until the evening hours, when a parent is home from work and available to assist them. It may also double-count some students who are already marked as “waiting on materials.”
With these caveats in mind, about 20 percent of students were marked absent on April 6. Nearly two weeks later, on April 16, 27 percent of students were marked absent.
“Those absences are being followed up on by social workers, office staff, others in the buildings,” Kaibel said, adding students most likely to be waiting for devices and internet connectivity are families living in poverty, which are disproportionately families of color.
At a recent school board meeting, Superintendent Ed Graff talked about how the strategy around attendance taking has shifted to being more of a safety net.
“It’s not punitive in nature. We just want to make sure we’re making those supports for students, whatever that may be — whether it’s just a check-in, or some guidance around instruction, or some positive relationship connections,” Graff said.
Class counts don’t need to be entered by the end of the normal school day, he added. In fact, teachers can update attendance records up to four days later, if they’ve been able to follow up with students to figure out why they haven’t been logging in or completing paper assignments.
Kaibel says teachers are still adjusting to the new engagement and attendance tracking methods. They’re used to only marking student absences, for those who don’t physically show up to class. Now they’re being asked to still track absences — with follow-up calls from school staff to identify which families are still waiting for devices or materials — and to go in and mark which students are participating in each lesson.
“It’d be too easy to lose a student if we didn’t do both,” Kaibel said. “If we’re only counting absences, we don’t know what’s behind it.”
In the St. Paul Public Schools district, data for week one of distance learning (April 6-9) show just 83 percent of students had checked in online.
“That’s the only data we have,” wrote Kevin Burns, a district spokesperson, in response to a request for student attendance and engagement data for the first week.
As school districts across the nation made the transition to distance learning, a team of researchers at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) began compiling a database to see how larger districts were adapting. As of Wednesday, that database included 82 districts — and only 16 were identified as still taking student attendance (including Minneapolis Public Schools).
That count doesn’t account for the engagement measure that many Minnesota schools are using as an alternative or parallel measure to track students.
“I’ve definitely seen some districts — they explicitly say attendance is not being taken, but they might still be doing types of engagement work,” said Sean Gill, a research analyst with CRPE.
How districts are using attendance records during distance learning varies as well. Some are using them as a system for flagging students for more direct outreach from a teacher or other staff member, to assist with some troubleshooting. Others are still factoring this data into participation grades, or reporting it to the state, for funding purposes.
“I think it’s too soon to say what is the benchmark, or what is the minimum data schools or individual classrooms should collect,” he said, adding if distance learning resumes at some point next fall, all states should set some baseline expectation around attendance “to make sure that kids aren’t going more than a couple days without having some kind of contact with a teacher, or some kind of engagement with an assignment.”
In Minnesota, “distance learning” has been defined as each student receiving a daily interaction with a licensed teacher. There’s just no requirement around tracking and reporting this daily interaction, for accountability purposes. That means districts have a great deal of latitude when it comes to student attendance and engagement record keeping.
In Lee Carlson’s experience, it’s a minimum threshold that his district, Windom Public Schools, has surpassed in its effort to track daily check-ins with each student through its advisory model.
While his primary title is secondary English teacher, he also has an advisory group — as do all of the other teachers in his building — that he’s responsible for checking in with on a routine basis. During distance learning, he’s been hosting a daily Google chat with these students and entering whom he’s not connecting with in a Google spreadsheet that’s shared with building and district leaders, to better coordinate follow-up outreach efforts.
This more personalized check-in strategy keeps the focus on student well-being and engagement. For instance, Carlson says he had a student contact him late on a Sunday evening to say he’d been preoccupied with waiting for the results of a COVID test.
“[That student] needed to hear, ‘I’m really sorry you’ve been sick. And I’ll follow up to make sure school knows,” Carlson said, noting distance learning amidst a pandemic requires educators to “be flexible and recognize we all need to do what we can to help out.”