Fewer high-needs and minority students showing up to school in Connecticut amid coronavirus surge

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This article was published in the Hartford Courant by Amanda Blanco on November 27, 2020.

The number of high-needs and minority students attending class in Connecticut this fall declined compared to the 2019-2020 school year, a concerning trend that could only accelerate as more districts transition to online learning amid a growing second wave of coronavirus infections.

The state Department of Education reported attendance among Black and Latino students dropped from about 94% last school year to about 89% at the start of this year, and the attendance rate of high-needs students, which includes English learners, students with disabilities and low-income students, dropped from about 94% to 90%. Some individual districts, including in the state’s poorest cities, experienced more pronounced declines.ADVERTISING

State officials and school administrators noted the data collection process is ongoing, and attendance numbers for September 2020 may adjust. September was also a short school month, with many districts reopening after Labor Day. Connecticut has never before collected attendance data on a monthly basis, noted the state. Usually, it is gathered at the end of the year.

Students who have an attendance rate of 90% or less are considered by the state to be chronically absent. That benchmark is based on research conducted by the National Center for Children in Poverty, said John Frassinelli, chief of the state Department of Education’s Bureau of Health, Nutrition, Family Services and Adult Education.

“When we talk about 10% of an 180 day calendar, that’s 18 days. That’s almost four entire weeks of instruction,” he said. “So 10% may sound low, but you can think about missing four entire weeks of school, which is significant.”

Frassinelli said chronic absenteeism during the first few years of schooling impacts students’ abilities to read at grade level and build math skills. By middle school, it is an early indicator of drop-out. But he stressed that any amount of missed school hurts students’ abilities to catch up to their peers.ADVERTISING

“We know education matters for building strong communities,” he said. “That’s part of the importance of it. It’s just not an individual achievement. It’s part of being a participating member of their community.”

Through the launch of new student-by-student attendance tracking systems, state Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said recently the state has confirmed that “the issue of attendance, enrollment, engagement disproportionately affects our urban centers, in our communities that are a little more dense, or have greater need.”

Districts including Hartford have reported lower attendance among fully online students compared to those receiving at least some in-person education, a factor that has contributed to the state’s desire to keep school buildings open as long as it is safe. In the spring, districts lost contact with tens of thousands of students after schools abruptly shifted to online learning, threatening to expand the state’s already wide achievement gap.

Harder to track students

School administrators are implementing a number of strategies to try and improve school attendance.

Hartford Superintendent of Schools Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said in a mid-November town hall that the district has made more than 1,000 visits so far to homes where students are struggling with engagement for a “variety of reasons.”

For September 2020, Hartford reported to the state an overall attendance rate of 80%, down from about 91% the previous year. Despite 95% of fully remote Hartford resident students having access to technology, they had an attendance rate of 75% in the first quarter of the school year. Hartford resident students attending in-person classes had an attendance rate of 82%.

As Hartford schools shift to a hybrid model of online and in-person learning, the district is launching a virtual tutoring programs weeknights and Saturdays. Tutoring for all grades and subjects is available, with specialized sessions for English learners and special education students.

“This one of the reasons why we were so focused on trying to maximize the opportunity to have students in school as much as possible, to build those relationships early on,” Torres-Rodriguez said.

According to the state report, Groton had an overall attendance rate of 82.1% in September 2020, down from 94.5% the previous year. Challenges in taking daily attendance, coupled with a statewide decline in public school enrollment of about 3% and a transient military population, impacted the district’s September rate, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Susan Austin said. She said updated district records show about a 85.4% rate of attendance in September, with a slight decline for October.

“I think the biggest concern is with our total remote students who disconnect, and you don’t hear from them for a week,” she said, noting that between one-quarter and one-third of Groton students are fully remote. “They average about 50 per week … out of the probably 1,200 who are fully remote.”

Through crisis management teams, school districts work with counselors and social workers to track down missing students. Some students may be unable to access remote lessons because their caretaker, such as a grandparent, is not familiar with online learning platforms, Austin said. Other students may have to work or take care of younger siblings.

Kari Sullivan, a state education consultant specializing in chronic absence, attendance, and student support said several districts are working with community partners to provide child care spaces for remote students while parents work during the day. In other districts, family-school liaisons regularly visit local neighborhoods and food distribution sites.

“They’re going to where parents are,” Sullivan said. Some schools are also prioritizing in-person classes for students who are not able to engage remotely, she added.

School administrators emphasized the importance of maintaining a sense of structure and schedule with remote learning as much as possible. Some districts also tape-record lessons and post them online for families to watch in the evening, in case students were unable to log on during the day.

In New Britain, the state report said attendance districtwide dropped from about 92.5% in the 2019-2020 school year to about 83% in September. Sondra Sanford, the district’s partnership coordinator, said teachers are also looking at the quality of work students are submitting and how they are performing on assessments. She called engagement “the most positive impact we can have on our students.”

New Britain school administrators are encouraging parents to sign up for their own PowerSchool accounts. The platform gives parents access to their children’s grades and attendance records and prevents them from getting locked out of the system if the student changes the password to their own PowerSchool account.

“It gives that independence and power to the parent to be able to monitor more effectively,” said Jeff Prokop, the district’s chief information officer, who uses it to keep track of his own children.

Frassinelli said the state is also providing professional development workshops for school staff and other mentors on how to build relationships with families virtually, as well as with community based organizations.

“Education is an active partnership between schools and families, and between teachers and students, and between communities and schools,” he said. “Everybody really has a role to play in supporting consistent access and consistent engagement in education. … Schools can’t to all of this alone.”