Schools Responding to COVID-19: October 2020 Update

Where are the children?

by Elana Feinberg, Expert-in-Residence

95% Average Daily Attendance. This is what most schools strive for. It accounts for the fact that most days, most students will be in school. Some may be sick, some are chronically absent, but 95% is the goal.

As schools began again this fall, we have seen attendance numbers far lower than 95%...

Nightmare on COVID Street

by Dale Chu, Expert-in-Residence

It’s back to school for high schoolers in Denver… or is it? Not inclusive of the nationwide shutdown last spring, high school students here have been attending virtual classes since August 24th. The district originally targeted this week for a return to in-person schooling, but it’s been delayed yet again. As disappointing as this may be...

Where are the children?

by Elana Feinberg, Expert-in-Residence

95% Average Daily Attendance. This is what most schools strive for. It accounts for the fact that most days, most students will be in school. Some may be sick, some are chronically absent, but 95% is the goal.

As schools began again this fall, we have seen attendance numbers far lower than 95%. For example, Detroit reported 78% attendance on the first week of school. There is the first challenge of actually taking attendance. Is it that the student has logged in that day? Completed an assignment? Shown up for all of their classes? Interacted with a teacher? Schools are struggling with how to track this, and honestly, there are few good methods so far, and many places are being fairly loose with tracking. Indeed, many schools have pivoted from attendance to “engagement,” essentially tracking interactions, participation and work completion.

Even if schools do figure out a way to track attendance, and find students (and their families), we have the more pressing challenge of the fact that many students are simply missing. Enrollment is dropping around the country, most remarkably at the kindergarten level. Los Angeles has approximately 11,000 students missing, for example, Chicago is down by 15,000. Many parents are keeping students home and not enrolling them in school, and many are sending them to private schools. Many parents are switching from district schools to charter schools. Others are considering more formal homeschooling options. Families have moved due to job (or life) loss or are now homeless. Some students, especially older students, are working or taking care of siblings or relatives. Technology access and problems still abound. Many older students also just find remote learning tedious and not worth it. The problem is most pronounced in low-income areas. Some parents are afraid for their children’s safety at in-person school, but this does not account for the “no showing” online. The other issue is that unlike remote learning in March, when students simply continued on with their same teacher(s), the start of the new school year brought new teacher(s) and therefore the need to forge new relationships--this time virtually.

Having so many students simply not show up to school has serious consequences. The first and most obvious one is the lost learning. Students with chronic absenteeism are more likely to not learn how to read, not learn basic math, and later, drop out of high school. Multiple school transfers are linked to declines in reading and math performance, as well as a host of social-emotional issues. Missing school at the lower grades leads to students being behind in reading, basic math, as well as social skills. The problem with attendance right now is so concerning that Massachusetts schools have begun notifying the Department of Family and Children’s services if students do not show up to virtual learning. There is no federal tracking program, so all of these schools and districts are on their own.

The other issue with low attendance and low enrollment, lesser-known to the general public, is that they are closely tied to how much money schools receive. When I worked in California, the CFO I worked with (as did many finance people at the time) referred to this as getting “butts in seats.” The problem has become so severe that Texas has temporarily decoupled attendance from funding, and California and North Carolina have also put in “hold harmless” provisions. One article called Covid-19 a “massive disruption” to enrollment. Schools are already suffering financially due to tax revenue being lower as a result of the virus, and because they also have additional costs related to the virus, such as supplying PPE, so they certainly cannot afford the attendance enrollment hit.

In order to deal with the missing students' issues, some schools and districts have dispatched people to call or visit homes where students are supposed to be, to urge them to come to school (err...class). As stated above, some districts are reporting families to social services. Other districts are improving remote learning, or making plans to return students to in-person learning as soon as possible. All in all, though, I fear we may have a “lost generation” on our hands, and that we will be dealing with the consequences of the virus for years to come.

Let’s find these missing kids before it’s too late.

Nightmare on COVID Street

by Dale Chu, Expert-in-Residence

It’s back to school for high schoolers in Denver… or is it? Not inclusive of the nationwide shutdown last spring, high school students here have been attending virtual classes since August 24th. The district originally targeted this week for a return to in-person schooling, but it’s been delayed yet again. As disappointing as this may be, parents and students may be surprised to learn that in-person won’t be all that it’s cracked up to be.

That’s because students who return to campus will still do most of their learning online due to strict, self-imposed limits on student-teacher interactions. The unusual model, which isn’t limited to the Mile High City, calls for students to stay in the same classroom all day with a single teacher or a teaching assistant. Students will take their classes virtually, taught by teachers located in another classroom or at home. This set up would allow schools to bring back as many students as possible to classrooms while limiting the risk presented by Covid. Indeed, given the different teachers required to teach different subjects, it’s much harder in high schools to limit the number of adults mingling with students.

To be fair, high schools nationwide have struggled with how to handle secondary school schedules during the pandemic, but if the academic experience at school is going to look similar to the one at home, it raises a slew of questions. Will parents want to risk exposing their son or daughter to Covid when the instructional ROI is questionable? How much benefit will students reap from what one parent described as a glorified study hall? Will teachers be any more effective in such an arrangement? And could this model create staffing issues if some families refuse to send their children back?

I wrote about the plight of high schoolers in these pages last month because they’ve been comparatively overlooked next to elementary students and other high-risk populations who are understandably being prioritized for a return to school buildings. Prompted by a call I had with a high school network struggling to address their students’ needs in a remote environment, I’ve been acutely attuned to how teenagers have been supported (or not) during these difficult times.

The evidence strongly suggests older kids are more susceptible to the virus than younger ones. Along with safety and health considerations, high school students are also able to better work independently and so, the argument goes, can handle virtual classes with less adverse effects. In addition, keeping learning online avoids the escalating tensions between teachers' unions and schools that have required teachers to teach virtual and in-person lessons simultaneously—what one news outlet referred to as an “instructional nightmare.”

But if all of this is a nightmare for teachers, it’s been a veritable horror show for students. Consider the mess around the SAT, something I also touched upon in my piece last month. The New York Times’ Emma Goldberg signed up to take the exam with hundreds of nervous teenagers and came back with a harrowing first-person account. Because of the pandemic, finding the opportunity to take the test has become a test in and of itself.

The anxiety-ridden stories are exactly that: Students crisscrossing the country (and in some instances, the globe) to find an available testing site. Covid induced disruptions and closures of testing centers. Frustration after time spent on studying and money spent on tutoring is effectively washed down the drain. The list goes on.

Some have taken to opportunistically casting blame upon the College Board, the organization that offers the SAT among other assessments. These broadsides come at a time when college admissions exams as a whole are in a more precarious position than ever. Personally, I think these anti-testing screeds are really a smokescreen for a larger attack being launched on equity and our nation’s most marginalized students. Specifically, the preferential treatment of wealthy high school students over low-income students with more competitive applications—something we’ve seen at institutions like UC Berkeley.

Talk about a nightmare.

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