Schools See Big Drop in Attendance as Students Stay Away, Citing Covid-19

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Low attendance rates create challenges for teaching and learning; ‘Nothing like this ever happened’

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In New York City, the nation’s largest school district, when classes resumed after the winter holidays, its overall attendance rate dropped to less than 70%, which accounts for more than 91% of the district’s daily school attendance from the pandemic- The former was far below average. Teachers said that many students missed class for fear of contracting the virus or because they or a family member had tested positive.

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“Nothing like this has ever happened,” Arthur Goldstein, a teacher at Francis Lewis High School in Queens, NY, said, referring to the continued low attendance. He has taught in New York City for 37 years and has conducted classes in the aftermath of disasters including the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

He said the low attendance rate has created significant challenges for teaching and learning. He said that children who miss classes may fall behind academically and socially.

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Thousands of public schools around the US have temporarily turned away from in-person learning this month, largely due to staffing shortages, despite growing recognition of the academic and psychological harm to distance learning students. The country has about 100,000 public schools open, if not necessarily full of students.

At Boston public schools, student attendance has dropped to about 70% since winter break ended on January 4, officials say is down from about 90% before the holidays. The district said that since last week, more than 1,000 new cases of Covid-19 linked to students have been reported. About 49,000 students study in the city’s public schools. Hundreds of the district’s nearly 4,400 teachers have also tested positive recently, officials said.

“We are seeing COVID hitting our employees as hard as our students are,” said Mark Racine, chief information officer for the Boston district.

He said students have access to an online service that lets them communicate with a tutor at any time, and some teachers are allowing students to attend remotely via Zoom.

Heather Hill, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, said some of her teachers in the US are teaching new material despite high absenteeism, albeit at a slower rate than usual. Some teachers are trying to keep absent students at bay by making Zoom calls after school or streaming videos to students in class with their peers at home. Others have set up a camera in the back of their classroom, she said.

“As a teacher, it makes it really difficult because you have to think about who has what material, who needs what material, what do you need to do for the kids to hold on,” Ms. Hill said.

Research shows that students’ standardized test scores are affected with each additional absence, she said. He said an average student with 10 absences during the school year would be expected to score about 3 percentage points lower than an average student who did not drop any school.

In Chicago, nearly two-thirds of public school students were present on January 3, the first day after winter break, which rose to 72% the next day. It was the last school day before a multi-day shutdown that is set to end with a return to in-person instruction on Wednesday. By comparison, according to the school district, attendance during the last week of school before winter break was around 85% and has historically been above 90%.

Chicago resident Devin Davis kept his 11-year-old son, Daniel, at home on the first day of winter break so he could get a COVID-19 test. But he said that staying at school benefits his physical and mental health and is a diligent mask wearer, so he sent her to school the next day.

Daniels said that his class of about 30 students was only half full that day. “Since there weren’t as many students, it wasn’t as loud and I could really concentrate more,” he said.

Mia Paulus, a 16-year-old junior at an arts high school in Chicago, said low attendance at her school one day last week forced the postponement of a project she was eager to finish for her digital-media class , a silent film in which she is playing the role of a police officer.

“I’m mentally prepared,” she recalled thinking back to school last Tuesday. But two out of five team members did not go to school that day. “Next thing, we can’t film,” she said, “and I was sad.”

Her father, JP Paulus, said he was comfortable sending Mia and her 11-year-old sister, Faith, to school because both have been vaccinated and their schools are kept clean.

Officials say that in Dallas, teacher and school staff absenteeism has increased but remains at high levels of normalcy. Albuquerque, NM, school officials said student attendance is likely to be below normal, but a lack of administrative staff has prevented the district from collecting complete data.

In Rochester, NY, public school attendance ranged from 61% to 66% last week, according to school district data. Just 44% of students in a high school attended on January 3, and barely half appeared in an elementary school, Superintendent Leslie Myers-Small said at a January 4 school board meeting.

It had then said that student attendance, along with staff absenteeism and the Covid-19 infection rate, would be a factor in deciding to go into distance learning. Two days later, the district made the temporary switch to virtual instruction.

Write Scott Calvert at [email protected] and Ben Chapman at [email protected]

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