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Schools Report Online Student Absences During Crisis

Minnesota’s transition to distance learning has left out tens of thousands of K-12 students and threatens to expand the state’s already wide gaps in achievement, early attendance reports suggest.

by Josh Verges, Pioneer Press / April 20, 2020
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(TNS) — Minnesota’s transition to distance learning has left out tens of thousands of K-12 students and threatens to expand the state’s already wide gaps in achievement, early attendance reports suggest.

Despite the broad deployment of wireless Internet hotspots and district-owned iPads, one in every six students never logged on during the week of April 6 as St. Paul Public Schools instruction resumed from afar following a four-week break.

In Minneapolis Public Schools, about one-third of students have been either absent or unable to complete schoolwork because they lacked a computing device or paper packet.

Meanwhile, attendance data from large suburban districts suggests black and Latino students are missing much more instruction than their peers since Gov. Tim Walz closed the state’s public schools March 18 to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Exasperating inequalities

Cities across the country are telling similar stories as school closures have upended school-based support networks and left many students navigating schoolwork on their own amid distractions from siblings, unreliable technology and countless stressors related to stay-at-home orders.

“We know that COVID-19 is further revealing and exacerbating inequities that existed prior to COVID-19,” said Hedy Chang, executive director and president of the national nonprofit Attendance Works.

The St. Paul district figured to have an advantage in making the switch to distance learning. The district is several years into a 1:1 technology program that provides each student with a school-owned iPad.

During a two-week planning period last month, the district began delivering iPads to students who hadn’t already taken theirs home. All but around 600 kids — out of some 34,000 — had a tablet when distance learning began April 6. The district said it also handed out around 1,700 wireless hotspots to students and staff who lacked Internet service at home.

“I think we’re lucky that we at least have a plan in St. Paul that everyone has a device and everyone has Internet access,” said Annaka Larson, a first-grade teacher at Wellstone Dual Immersion, where about half the class are native Spanish speakers and the rest are learning it as a second language.

Students shouldn't stress if they can't get everything done

Larson said she sent several emails to families during the two-week planning period to make sure they were prepared and building a habit of going online for school. She had outdated contact information for some families, and those two weeks gave her time to track people down.

Through Tuesday, she said, just one of her students had yet to log on since distance learning began.

Some of the others have struggled through bad Internet connections, disappearing Seesaw projects and parents unavailable to help until late at night. On Tuesday, a mom called when her son’s iPad locked him out for entering the wrong password too many times.

Larson tells students not to stress out if they can’t get everything done.

“I want to know that kids are getting their emotional needs met, their need for connection, their need to feel competent and feel challenged, but challenged in a way that feels positive and encouraging,” she said.

Following up

Districtwide during the first four days of distance learning, officials said, 17 percent of St. Paul students never logged on to their learning platform — Schoology for older students and Seesaw for grades K-2.

Those who don’t interact are marked absent and get a robo-call from their school. After two consecutive absences, schools are expected to reach out personally.

Fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Gruber works at Maxfield Elementary in the Rondo neighborhood, where 88 percent of students qualify for lunch subsidies. She said no more than half of her students were “connecting and engaging in the work on a daily basis” during the first week. At this point, she said, teachers can only guess as to why.

For the past three years, Ramsey County has paid Lutheran Social Services to place a social worker at Maxfield to keep students from losing touch with the school.

Soon, that person will get a new list of students who’ve been unreachable since the school closed March 10 for a teacher strike, then stayed closed for spring break and to prepare for distance learning.

“Those that we serve are vulnerable, and this (pandemic) has made them even more vulnerable,” said Heather Kamia, a program director for the nonprofit.

Maxfield also has a relationship with the Cultural Wellness Center, whose community elders will work to find students who aren’t engaging with distance learning.

Principal Ryan Vernosh said students are struggling with technology issues and family illness, as well as the familiar challenges of finding food and housing. Eight percent of his students lacked permanent housing last fall, well before the coronavirus put the brakes on the economy.

“The pandemic hasn’t necessarily stopped the impact of the inequities in the country,” Vernosh said. “The generations of unjust systems are amplified during the pandemic.”

Fewer absences in suburbs

The Pioneer Press asked the state’s five largest school districts for attendance data from their early days of distance learning.

St. Paul said 83 percent of its students logged on at least once during the first week, but officials provided no detailed data.

Minneapolis provided several categories of data but its attendance records were far from complete. For April 9, teachers still hadn’t recorded the attendance status of 26 percent of their students.

Of those who did have an attendance record that day, 21 percent of Minneapolis students were marked absent. Another 12 percent had contact with their teacher but lacked the materials they needed to do their work.

The South Washington County school district is recording attendance weekly, not daily, during distance learning. Their data show 12 percent of all secondary students had no contact with their teachers during the first week of distance learning.

In Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, which, like St. Paul, takes attendance daily through Schoology and Seesaw, just 5 percent of students were marked absent at the start of their second week of distance learning.

Both of those suburban districts provided detailed data that showed black and Latino students were averaging nearly twice as many absences as white students.

Attendance methods vary

Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest district, doesn’t know how many students are showing up for distance learning.

That’s because the district is counting every child as present unless a parent reports the child is sick. The district tallied fewer than 200 absences the entire first week.

Superintendent David Law said he expects each school is monitoring participation and following up with the parents of missing students.

In normal times, Minnesota school districts are expected to record attendance daily and report it to the state at the end of the year. Students who miss 15 straight days must be un-enrolled, after which the state no longer provides the district with per-student funding for that child.

The 15-day rule remains in effect during distance learning, but state officials have given districts wide latitude in how they record attendance.

Asked about how Anoka-Hennepin and South Washington County were taking attendance, state officials expressed no concerns.

Attendance is part of the state’s school accountability system, which determines which low-performing schools warrant state intervention. However, a coronavirus-related waiver from the federal government says the state won’t have to use the data from this school year; standardized tests, too, have been canceled.

Chang, of Attendance Works, said schools should be checking in on students every day and exploring why they aren’t participating.

If a district assumes a child is present unless they hear otherwise, she said, “I’m not sure how that helps you support families.”

©2020 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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