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School Attendance In The COVID Era: What Counts As 'Present'?

Charlotte Fu for NPR

From shiny red pencils reading "My Attendance Rocks!" to countless plaques and ribbons and trophies and certificates and gold stars: For as long as anyone can remember, taking attendance — and rewarding kids for simply showing up — is a time-honored school ritual.

For good reason: Just being there, day in, day out, happens to be one of the most important factors that determines a child's success in school. And average daily head count forms the basis of school funding decisions at the federal, state and local level.

Yet now, like so many other aspects of education, that simple measure — "here" or "absent" — is not so simple anymore. States are having to update their attendance policies to cover the realities of virtual learning. And where school is being held in-person, strict coronavirus health protocols mean students must now stay home at the slightest sign of illness, or to quarantine in case of a potential exposure.

So the emerging questions for educators and parents are: What is the best way to measure whether students are participating in learning? And who will be held responsible for a student who doesn't participate? The student? Their caregiver? The school?

It all adds up to "a paradigm shift," says Hedy Chang,who directs Attendance Works, a national and state level initiative that treats attendance as a key lever to student success. It was Chang's research in the mid-2000s that helped lay the groundwork for the current policy focus on chronic absenteeism. She found that missing more than 10% of school days in a year was an "early warning signal" for students earning low grades and eventually dropping out, and that it affected low-income students disproportionately.

Responding in part to this research, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law in 2015, raised the stakes on attendance. It required states to add at least one nonacademic measure of success into their state accountability systems. Thirty-six states and Washington, D.C., chose chronic absenteeism. Not just student success, but school success, would be defined in part by this metric: How many kids missed more than 10 percent of days in a school year.

The carrot and the stick

Mariajose Romero, a Pace University sociologist who has researched attendance for decades, calls it "a piece of information that has tremendous political currency," which only intensified when it became a measure of school accountability. Not only students, but also schools, succeed or fail based on the students who show up every day. And so, "it's important to count people properly."

School systems responded to the new pressure of the federal law by trying to improve attendance using both the carrot and the stick. The positive side: celebrity public awareness campaigns, like this partnership, called "Stay in the Game!" which features the Cleveland Browns. Plus, all those shiny red pencils.

The negative side included legal action. U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, now the Democratic vice presidential candidate, has been criticized for an anti-truancy program she introduced as San Francisco district attorney that threatened some parents of chronically absent children with jail. Another weapon wielded against parents: charges of "educational neglect." In New York City this spring, some school staff reportedly called child welfare officers when students didn't sign in for online learning — an action that could potentially result in children being removed from their families.

Chang says schools need to shift away from punitive means, especially now. She counsels "a positive, problem-solving approach."

A positive approach is exactly what Misha Karigaca says his California district, Oakland Unified, is taking these days. His title — coordinator of attendance & discipline — suggests that attendance has historically come under the category of a student behavior to be rewarded or punished.

These days, it's different. There's a "heightened awareness to our work," Karigaca says. Educators, he explains, are "understanding the fragility of students having a high chance of missing out on learning opportunities."

He points to "Oakland Undivided," a public-private partnership that has raised $13 million to provide 25,000 laptops and Internet hot spots to Oakland families. Karigaca says it's part of a recognition that keeping kids connected to school is "a community effort ... the whole city is behind it."

Does answering a text message "count"?

One tricky matter that schools have to decide in this era is how exactly they're going to credit "attendance" when online learning doesn't always mean showing up on a video conference. Districts such as Los Angeles Unified have been criticized for setting the bar too low by decreeing that any interaction — even a single text between a parent and a teacher — counts as "participation" for a given day.

Paolo DeMaria, the superintendent of public instruction for the state of Ohio, says he's trying to shift districts toward recognizing whether students are making academic progress. "If they're participating and engaging, that counts. And that's important," he says. The flexibility provided by remote instruction is a good thing, he says.

He adds that he's had many conversations with parents of teenagers who don't start schoolwork until noon. And that's perfectly fine, he says, if they're making progress in their studies:

"I think the long-term goal is to actually be creative and understanding," DeMaria explains. "We're so used to testing and just taking attendance as kind of anchors of measurement. And we need to take our thinking to the next level."

Of course, this raises the question of who is extended this kind of "creative" leniency. Romero, at Pace University, worries that high-income schools may be more likely than those in poor neighborhoods to provide excused absences for, say, a mid-year vacation. Meanwhile, she adds, "sometimes I'm concerned that the issue of chronic absence is used to demonise families in need."

With funding hanging in the balance, in a year when schools already face deep cost-cutting and huge additional burdens, another big question is whether too-loose attendance policies can let schools off the hook by misrepresenting how many students they are actually serving, and how well.

The school leaders interviewed for this story talked a lot about keeping lines of communication open as a way to remove barriers to online learning, or to reassure parents of safety measures for in-person learning.

DeMaria, in Ohio, says that despite all the challenges, promoting attendance these days, whether in-person or hybrid, means "making sure you've got communication channels that can reach every family in every state."

Sometimes, though, that communication includes reminding parents of compulsory attendance laws. In Mississippi, where some schools are opening in-person and others are online, Carey Wright, the state Superintendent of Education, has just put out a notice reminding parents, "if you want to keep your child at home and not in school, you've got to give us some kind of home schooling program."

Chang would like to see family communication be a big part of part of a "positive, problem-solving approach." Getting devices and Internet connections into homes is a basic need that hasn't yet been met, it's estimated, for millions of students.

Beyond that, schools need to focus on updating contact information for all students, she says. And schools should take advantage of the large amounts of data provided by learning management software systems: "Notice each time kids show up and notice when they don't show up and look for patterns on whether there could be particular types of learning opportunities that they miss."

But what may be most important, Chang says, is a new type of data collection: Call it the friends list. The key question: "Do kids and families feel there is someone that they can talk to if they have a challenge?"

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.