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Minnesota schools try to balance accountability, flexibility in tracking attendance amid pandemic

How school districts across the state are sorting out the ins and outs of tracking student attendance.

student desks

Samantha Colai’s two children, ages 6 and 9, both attend Yinghua Academy, a full-immersion Mandarin Chinese K-8 charter school located in northeast Minneapolis. They opted to participate in the hybrid model this fall, which includes two days of in-person instruction and two days of at-home learning, Monday through Thursday. 

Fridays, however, have become a point of confusion for many parents — Colai included. 

“Fridays, there’s no school — I think. On our parent website, they’re saying we need to check in on Friday,” she said. “So I still don’t really know what we’re supposed to do.”

She’s already feeling stretched a bit thin, managing their daily attendance records through their online student information system. So solving her confusion over if — and why — she should be marking her kids present every Friday doesn’t rank very high on her to-do list. 

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“I’ve kind of gotten to the point where I’m just trying to survive. I’m solo parenting with both kids. So this is the least of my concerns,” she said, adding there’s so much information coming at her right now she may have simply missed some piece of communication. 

The school’s executive director, Susan Berg, says they started out the school year asking students to check in as present on Friday, but have since decided “it’s just as easy for us to do it, as a school, because however parents choose to engage in school on Fridays — because there are so many things going on on Friday — we feel pretty confident that … they’re attending.”

Susan Berg
Susan Berg
That list of Friday school activities includes things like office hours and small group work, initiated by both teachers and students, along with in-person practice for three orchestras and two Chinese ensemble groups. For kindergarteners, Fridays are a day for in-person language immersion, spread out into smaller cohorts throughout the building. For older students, it’s a day they can expect to receive a 15- to 20-minute phone call from an educator to practice their Chinese conversation skills. 

As schools across the state sort out the new ins and outs of tracking student attendance, MinnPost checked in with the state’s three largest districts — Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul and Minneapolis —  to see how they’re approaching this task. The state Department of Education has expanded upon its guidance from last spring, when everyone was thrust into a full distance learning model. But each district is charged with striking their own balance between holding students accountable for attending school while also factoring in pandemic-related circumstances.

“For in-person learning, it’s kind of the same as before,” said Wendy Hatch, a spokesperson for the department, referring to pre-COVID expectations. “As far as hybrid and distance learning, we are still asking for schools to be flexible and to work with families. We know that hybrid and distance learning can be challenging.” 

Back to head counts

In the Anoka-Hennepin Schools district, attendance taking “feels very similar to how it’s always felt,” says Superintendent David Law. Whether students are participating in their school’s hybrid model, or doing all school from home, their teachers are conducting and logging daily attendance records. 

Supt. David Law
Anoka-Hennepin School District
Supt. David Law
For secondary students, that practice ends up being very similar to an “are you here, in front of me, for every hour of the day,” check-in, says Law. That method is made possible by the fact that all secondary students are receiving their classes synchronously, meaning teachers are teaching in-person cohorts while simultaneously live-streaming their instruction for students who are learning from home for the day. 

For elementary students, the school day is broken into a few chunks of class that gets delivered to all students synchronously as well. Through this format, they also get daily attendance checks, initiated by their teachers. 

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There is at least one key difference in attendance-taking practices this fall, though. An elementary teacher’s window for attendance taking for distance learning or at-home hybrid students has been expanded to all day, rather than being confined to the school day. So long as a student logs in that day for class or turns in an assignment from the day, they can be counted as present. 

“With this virtual environment, if you have done the work within a reasonable time, you attended school — specifically for the distance learner families. I mean, they’ve asked us for it: ‘Give us some flexibility because I can’t be home with my kid during the time that you’re teaching,”’ Law said, adding that beyond that, attendance expectations are “considerably tighter” than they were last spring. 

With only a week’s worth of attendance data for secondary students in the hybrid learning model, he says it’s still a bit too early to get a solid read on student attendance. But he anticipates those numbers won’t look much different from what they do under normal circumstances — perhaps even a bit better, given the fact that even a student who doesn’t feel the best, or who may be self-quarantining due to an exposure to someone with COVID-19, they can still log in and do school from home. 

At this point, every student who’s requested a school-issued device has received one, Law says. “We’re in a better position to provide direct instruction, remotely, than we’ve ever been,” he said. 

Automated reminders, case-by-case exceptions

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. The state Department of Education’s primary focus, with regard to attendance, is on getting updated average daily membership counts from districts — a data point used to calculate and allocate state and federal school funding.

Data from students’ first full week of distance learning in the St. Paul Public Schools district (for the week of Sept. 14) shows that just 85 percent of all students were in attendance, says Kevin Burns, a district spokesperson. While that’s similar to the attendance total reported by the district last April, it doesn’t perfectly capture who’s showing up for class and who isn’t.

“District-wide enrollment is not yet final and won’t be until next month,” Burns said, adding a small percentage of students still don’t have a district-issued iPad, which makes the checking-in requirement easier to follow through on. 

Through Infinite Campus, the district’s student information system, a student — or their parent, doing so on their behalf — can check in before 11:59 p.m. each day to avoid an unexcused absence. If they haven’t marked themselves present by 6:30 p.m., they’ll get an automated phone call reminder. 

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In the Minneapolis Public Schools district, elementary students get an attendance check once a day. For secondary students, that check-in happens three times each school day, says Colleen Kaibel, director of student retention and recovery for the district. Instead of doing six or seven class periods each day, at the secondary level, students are enrolled in a block schedule. That means longer class periods, but fewer classes each day. 

“The message to the students and the families has been: The hours of your school are the same as they were for in-person learning. And we want you to learn during these hours, as best you can,” Kaibel said. “But we certainly understand that, for some students, sitting that long can be difficult. For some students, they may have to help younger siblings. There might be things that pull them away.”

In these cases, she says, the ask of students and teachers has been to work out an attendance system that makes sense. The district has support teams — composed of school social workers and other student support staff — that are ready to follow up with families to help remove any barriers to participating in school remotely. But this safety net relies on teachers to keep good attendance records.

By now, most students should be outfitted with a district-issued device. The district didn’t collect them from families at the end of last year, so preparing for this fall meant focusing on simply closing the tech gaps — distributing more devices to new students and outfitting households that may have been sharing a device among multiple students with additional devices. 

That resource piece, combined with a big push from teachers and district-level support teams to do home visits and check in on students showing up as absent on attendance records, seems to be reflected in initial attendance data. 

For instance, by the end of week two, 93 percent of all students in the district had logged at least one positive attendance mark in a day, compared to just 87 percent of students having been recorded as present during the second week of distance learning last spring. 

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Attendance records are up this fall for all student subgroups as well — including breakdowns by race, special education status, English learner status and free-and-reduced-priced lunch status. 

“This is a pretty good start — especially when we see the trend going upward,” Kaibel said. “And regarding our vulnerable populations, the same thing: They’ve been identified, recognized and responded to.”