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Low Virtual Attendance a Financial Risk for Detroit Schools

Schools in Michigan can lose state funding if 75 percent of students don't attend school on enough days, and Detroit Public Schools has seen virtual attendance fall below 70 on several recent days.

Thirkell Elementary-Middle School students walk past students playing drums and a cheer team as they are released at the end of the day at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School in Detroit on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, before Detroit Public Schools pauses in-person learning due to the spike in COVID-19 cases.
(TNS) — Detroit's school district is once again struggling with student attendance online. As few as 58 percent of students signed into virtual school one day last week.

Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, presented recent attendance data on Tuesday during a school board meeting. According to his presentation, 58 percent, 62 percent and 70 percent of students attended online school on Friday, Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

Low attendance numbers are not only worrisome for the largest school district in the state because of student well-being, but also could affect the district financially, Vitti said. The low turnout is a part of a larger chronic absenteeism problem that's plagued the district for over a decade. Attendance rates were beginning to rebound before the pandemic, but suffered a blow during it.

Detroit students are absent for a medley of reasons. Some of those hinge on whether school is in-person or virtual: In-person school may be hard to get to for some students due to transportation challenges, while virtual school presents problems for students with insufficient Internet access.

Last school year, a quarter of Detroit students missed half or more school days, according to recent research conducted at Wayne State University's College of Education.

"For some students there were just weeks upon weeks when they just weren't attending any kind of virtual online schooling," Sarah Lenhoff, a professor at Wayne State, said.


Wayne State researchers surveyed Detroit families about the 2020-2021 school year and looked at student attendance records.

The researchers found:

  • Seventy percent of Detroit students were chronically absent in that school year, missing 10 percent or more days. About 54 percent were severely chronically absent, missing 20 percent of more days.
  • More than half of district families "experienced financial, mental health, and logistical challenges" through the pandemic, and more than a third had a family member sick from or die of the coronavirus.
  • Computer and Internet issues were most frequently cited by families as the biggest barrier to attendance.

Lenhoff said the Internet barriers existed despite funding from big donors for technology, including a $23 million donation for laptops for 50,000 students.

"I'm sure that made a difference for some kids," she said. "But our research suggests that it definitely wasn't a cure-all for the digital divide."

Schools in Michigan can be penalized financially if 75 percent of students don't attend school on enough days. The state will cut a district's aid if attendance numbers don't add up. Michigan offered flexibility around that rule early in the pandemic, but did not offer that flexibility this year. Vitti said he's hopeful lawmakers might revise that stance due to the surge in coronavirus cases due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Vitti during Tuesday's meeting said absences tend to ramp up later in the school year as outside temperatures warms.

"We're going to be even more vulnerable by the end of the year when the weather gets warmer and fewer students attend school," Vitti said.

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