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Taking Attendance During COVID-19 School Closures: It's Complicated

Emily Michot
Miami Herald
Broward County pre-kindergarten teacher Sheryl Munoz taught her first virtual class on March 30 from the front porch of her Hollywood home.

Taking attendance is no longer as simple as recording a student as “present” or “absent” in class, with schools closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus and instruction being delivered online for the near future.

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South Florida school districts are developing new systems for monitoring students’ class participation and reaching out to families when students don’t show up online.

In the meantime, they’re grappling with difficult questions: Does logging on to an online educational platform once during a school day mean a student is meaningfully present for a day of instruction and activities? What if they log on at night instead? Which students aren't logging on at all, and why?

Monroe County School District Superintendent Mark Porter isn't satisfied with tracking student attendance using only students’ online logons. “How accurate is it, really?” he said.

In addition to registering students’ virtual presence, the Florida Keys district is also asking teachers to take a more detailed attendance record for their classes using other factors, like whether they’ve received completed assignments or been in touch with students by email.

By providing that information, teachers are answering: “Is this a student who you have not only had minimal contact with but who you feel was ‘present’ because of their online effort?” Porter said.

School district administrators in Broward and Palm Beach counties are using a similar, multi-layered approach.

In Broward, 96% of students have logged on to the district's student portal at least once since online learning began there on March 30, a statistic that gives district officials confidence the vast majority of students have access to the basic resources they need to connect: devices and internet. The district distributed more than 80,000 laptops and tablets.

On a daily basis so far, the percentage of Broward students engaging with online learning has been in the high 80s, according to the district's chief academic officer Daniel Gohl. That's compared to 94% attendance at school on a typical day.

(Broward and other South Florida school districts have not yet fulfilled public records requests for specific district-wide and school-by-school attendance numbers for Monday and Tuesday.)

Gohl said the district has formulated its attendance numbers by considering three factors: logons through the district's main online portal, logons in individual courses within that portal, and teachers' assessments of students' engagement. 

The district has already identified some pitfalls. For example, there have been students who were mistakenly counted as absent because they left their computers logged onto the portal from one day to the next, and the system did not register their attendance on the second day.

Administrators have also heard from some parents who work during the day that it's easier to help their children complete schoolwork in the evenings.

"We are taking attendance from 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., because people are having to navigate this in a way that doesn’t lend itself to the traditional school hours," Gohl said.

The biggest gaps so far, albeit with limited data, show that the youngest and oldest students are less likely to log on, Gohl said. Kids in pre-school, kindergarten and elementary school might be unable to log on by themselves, and seniors might be less motivated, because they've already completed most of their work for the year, he said.

However, "we have not yet seen a pattern that would divide along race or class lines," he said. "We are very sensitive to that."

In Palm Beach County, more than 133,000 public school students entered their Google classrooms on Monday. That's about 77% of the district's enrollment, nearly 174,000. However, a district spokeswoman said the logon numbers aren’t the only attendance indicators being used. Teachers are also doing a more granular accounting of their students’ participation, looking at other factors, as well.

According to the Palm Beach County district’s attendance policy for the COVID-19 closures, students can demonstrate their attendance by participating in a live virtual class discussion, posting on an online discussion board, submitting written assignments or logging onto a district-approved online program like iReady. Lessons are also being broadcast on public television, but it's unclear how the district could determine whether students are watching the educational programming.

Although Miami-Dade County shifted to online learning on March 16 — earlier than others in South Florida — the district did a soft rollout and waited to begin tracking student attendance until this week.

In Miami-Dade, students are marked present if they log on to the district’s online education portal at any time during the day. If they don’t, they are given an excused absence, and their parents receive automated telephone messages by noon the next day notifying them of students’ absences. Families then have 72 hours to appeal the absences, during which they can submit evidence of students' participation, such as emails exchanged with teachers.

South Florida districts are also trying more personal strategies to connect with families who appear to have been left behind.

The school district in the Florida Keys recorded 86% attendance on Monday — not far off from a typical day in the district, when about 90% of students would go to school, Superintendent Mark Porter said. But he's concerned about which students might be disproportionately represented in that 14%.

He said he expects that many of the students who aren’t logging on are those whose parents do not speak English and therefore might be less able to help students use English-based online programs. The district has mobilized paraprofessionals, including those who speak Spanish and Haitian Creole, to call families of students who have been absent.

“If we don’t see students participating, we are doing everything we can to reach out to them and get them engaged,” Porter said.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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