September 8th, 2020
Story

Teacher Nikki Hudon reads a book to her Doull Elementary School class via video conference in an empty classroom in Denver on Sept. 4, 2020.

Photo by Joe Mahoney / Special to The Colorado Trust

By Julia C. Martinez

It was a hectic opening day of the new academic year at Doull Elementary School in southwest Denver. The school was going virtual for the first time in an effort to keep students, teachers and families safe in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Denver Public Schools (DPS), the largest school district in Colorado, had weighed the potential health risks and decided the safest bet was for its 92,000 students to start the year online.

Roll call was to be the first order of business, in keeping with district guidelines to account daily for every student. Last spring, DPS schools lost track of several dozen students as schools experimented with remote learning for the first time. Students with no computer or internet access, or those who didn’t wish to participate in distance learning, didn’t show up online.

At 8:15 a.m., with Doull Elementary teachers revved up in front of their computers, ready to welcome their young pupils, a power outage struck the area, leaving computer screens blank and families without electricity.

“I literally couldn’t believe it,” said Jodie Carrigan, principal of Doull Elementary, who had spent weeks preparing for a smooth opening. Forty-eight hours earlier, she had delivered learning supplies and computers to families who had not responded to several outreach efforts. “It was such bad timing, but we persevered,” she said.

After power was restored around 10 a.m., the majority of students logged onto their school-issued computers and the virtual day was off and running, minus a glitch here and there.

Thirty-five of the 400 children were marked absent that morning. Most of the absences stemmed from computer issues, which Carrigan said were resolved by day’s end.

District-wide, DPS recorded an 86% online attendance rate on opening day—meaning 14% (or about 12,800) of the district’s 92,000 students did not show up. The second day, online attendance climbed to 88%. Computer and connectivity issues might have played a partial role, but district spokesperson Winna MacLaren declined to give any reasons.

In a district historically plagued with excessive absences, understanding the precise reasons could take a while. With the exception of early childhood programs, which are now slated to return in early September, DPS plans to transition back to in-person learning on Oct. 16, at the end of the first quarter.

Carrigan, her administrators and teachers had made special efforts in recent years to ensure that their students—largely Hispanic, from low-income families—attended school and engaged in learning. In 2015, the school launched a free breakfast program when it became clear that some children were coming to school hungry. Last year, the school installed a washer and dryer after some parents said their children missed school because they had no clean clothes to wear. Still, in the 2018-19 school year, one third of Doull’s students were chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 10%—roughly 18 days or more—of the school year.

Carrigan worries that dealing with the challenges that come with virtual learning could be a far more intricate prospect than the school’s breakfast and clean clothes programs.

“It’s going to be very difficult for young students to be in front of a screen when their mode of learning is through play and hands-on activities,” said Carrigan, who also worries that students may miss out on critical social benefits that in-person schooling provides. As the days wear on, they could lose focus and get left behind—or simply stop showing up on screen—especially if parents or grandparents are unavailable or unable to help them.

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Even before the coronavirus disrupted lives, livelihoods and traditional classroom education, tens of thousands of public school students in Colorado were chronically missing from classes, leaving them at risk academically.

In the 2018-19 school year, nearly 200,000 students statewide missed 10% or more of the school year. That was nearly a quarter of the 877,308 students enrolled in Colorado public schools that year. The absences occurred in all grades and across diverse settings, from large urban centers and suburbs to small rural and mountain areas.

In sheer numbers, the absences were most acute in DPS, where 40%—or about 34,500 students enrolled that year—chronically missed classes and were deemed to be academically at risk.

Nationwide, some 8 million students, in every state and at every grade level, missed at least one day in 10, according to the most recent federal data.

Colorado law requires children between the ages of 6 and 16 to attend school. And a 2015 federal law requires all states to include chronic-absence data in their annual school report cards to the U.S. Department of Education. Because of the school disruptions linked to the pandemic, the federal government waived the requirement to collect attendance data for 2019-20.

“Chronic absence, missing just 10% of school for any reason, is a leading indicator and a cause of educational inequity,” said Hedy Chang, founder and chief executive of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit initiative working to reduce chronic absences in schools across the country. “Monitoring absenteeism is even more crucial now with the pandemic… [because] it is a warning sign that a student and their family face barriers that, left unaddressed, will cause them to fall behind.”

Chronic absence starts as early as preschool and kindergarten, and for some students it becomes a pattern that is hard to reverse. Studies have found that all children, regardless of socioeconomic background, do worse in first grade if they are chronically absent in kindergarten.

“At the end of third grade, if students are chronically absent, we know they are less likely to read proficiently,” said Leslie Colwell, vice president of K-12 Education Initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign (a Colorado Trust grantee). “As time goes on, those students with consistent attendance gaps are the students we often see struggling later on.”

In middle school, chronic absence is a warning sign that students are on the path to dropping out, according to the Colorado Department of Education. In ninth grade, attendance is a better predictor than test scores that a student will leave before completing high school.

At the end of the 2018-19 school year, 9,277 students dropped out of Colorado schools, or about 2% of students overall. The dropout rate was higher than the state average among students of color—3.2% among Hispanics, 3% among Blacks, 4% among American Indians or Alaska Natives—and lower among whites (1.2%) and Asians (0.8%).

As many schools across Colorado roll out virtual classes, some educators fear that many students will be unable to adapt to the pressures and disadvantages of online learning, miss critical instruction and be unable to catch up.

“The virus has compounded all of the factors that cause children to miss school—some harmless, some insidious,” said Amber Elias, lead operational superintendent for DPS. “Anything that has been challenging has become more challenging.”

It is unknown how many students might have lost a family member to the pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color in Colorado. Some live in families coping with the effects of illness, unemployment and unstable housing, burdens that fall disproportionately to low-income students of color and other vulnerable student populations. Some have learning problems or a propensity for depression or anxiety exacerbated by the pandemic and the sudden experiment in virtual learning.

With nearly 68% of DPS students qualifying for free and reduced meals, hunger could be a factor that impacts students’ ability to succeed at remote learning if parents or older students without transportation are unable to reach the district’s grab-and-go sites.

Across the state, abuse or neglect could be other factors that keep children from engaging remotely, said Pueblo Police Sgt. Franklyn Ortega. But helping them could be tougher because there is no one to report it. In Pueblo, the number of child abuse calls to the police has declined 17% since the pandemic started.

“There is probably an increase in child abuse and neglect, but who’s going to report it?” Ortega said. “The person who’s doing it is living in the same house, and they’re not going to call.”

Michael Hernandez, a teacher at East High School in Denver, recorded two absences in his freshman geography class on opening day and planned to follow up with both students. One didn’t show up and another logged on, then logged off after two minutes.

But Hernandez got a hint of another problem that, without supportive efforts from the school, could present an obstacle to one student’s virtual learning. A new freshman student, who lives with her grandmother, was so scared and shy on opening day that she would not turn on her computer’s video or unmute her microphone, he said.

“I could see her icon on the screen so we knew she was there,” said Hernandez. “We knew she was participating and she seemed to be listening… but she was reluctant to engage.”

After the class, Hernandez contacted the student’s grandmother, who said that the girl knew how to use the computer but is “super shy and didn’t want anyone to see her or hear her voice,” Hernandez said. “We encouraged her to keep attending and we’ll focus on the next class and the one after that—one class at a time.”

To try to ensure that students stay engaged and don’t fall behind, taking attendance and monitoring absenteeism will be a critical element of every virtual-learning day at DPS, Elias said. In the spring, taking attendance was hit-and-miss and did not track student participation.

“We are putting our virtual eyes on the kids in our remote lessons… so they are where they’re supposed to be,” Elias said.

Missing students will get a call from school officials and even in-person home visits, if necessary. For students still lacking basic learning tools, home visitors will be equipped with supplies, computers and a lesson on how to use them. For students with connectivity issues, DPS purchased hotspots in hopes of ensuring all students can connect wirelessly.

“We will escalate our interventions from there, because the last thing we want to do is get behind and make it more challenging for our kids to engage this year,” Elias said.

Before the pandemic, students missed large amounts of school for a variety of reasons. While there is no Colorado-specific data, national research shows that both acute and chronic health conditions—such as asthma, diabetes, dental problems, disabilities and mental health conditions, such as anxiety—are tied to excessive absences. Low-income Black, Hispanic and Native American students are disproportionately impacted, along with kids who feel unsafe, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

A 2017 study by University of Colorado and Children’s Hospital Colorado researchers concluded that witnessing or experiencing neighborhood violence has a “clear relationship to chronic absenteeism.”

In rural communities, lack of computers and connection issues could leave students scrambling to catch up. A computer shortage in San Luis Valley schools left hundreds of students without their primary learning devices on opening day of the school year, with no guarantee as to when they might arrive.

In the Alamosa School District, the largest in the Valley, only 650 of the 2,300 students made it online the first day of class on Aug. 24, said Luke Yoder, executive director of the Alamosa-based Center for Restorative Programs, which works with the Valley’s 14 school districts to reduce the high rate of unexcused absences and keep students out of the juvenile justice system. The district’s chronic absentee rate hovers around 22%.

“One of the challenges we’re seeing is that schools have not been equipped to do intensive online learning,” said Yoder. “They’re kind of building the plane as it’s flying. The fact is the infrastructure doesn’t exist and they’re all having to scramble to create it.”

Attendance is expected to be inconsistent for virtual classes, even after the computers and hotspots are handed out, because many students “lack the in-home infrastructure to help them succeed,” Yoder said. “This leads to kids falling behind—that’s going to be the reality this school year, and it’s going to be up to the schools to minimize and mitigate that.”

San Luis Valley schools are scheduled to return to in-person learning on staggered schedules by mid-September. Those who wish to continue virtual sessions will be able to do so, but with no guarantees that they will have computers or connections.

Creede School, tucked into the rugged San Juan mountains in southwest Colorado, blazed its own trail this school year with blended learning. The majority of the 85 students are attending in person, sitting in front of their computers as classes are conducted live via GoGuardian technology, with a handful of students joining the live classrooms remotely from their homes.

Creede is a small school with a large chronic absentee problem. In the 2018-19 school year, 42 of its 95 students were chronically absent. That was 44% of the student enrollment, which is mostly white and with the majority qualifying for the federal government’s free or reduced meals program.

With no coronavirus cases reported in Mineral County for at least a month, Principal John Goss did not hesitate to return to in-person learning. “This is the safest place you can imagine,” Goss said. Between in-person and online, only one student was absent—a junior working remotely, said Goss—and he hopes to convince the student to return to the classroom.

In the event there is a coronavirus outbreak, or the governor shuts down schools, “It’s not going to be difficult for us to go from what we’re doing today to all remote learning,” said Goss. “We’ll be able to conduct classes the same way.”

While the San Luis Valley struggles with connectivity problems, Goss said he used grant money to purchase computers for every student and pay the local cable company to install fiber optic cables, both for the school and for students working remotely.

“The idea that the poor kids can’t go to school because they can’t afford their computer and can’t afford their wireless—well, we just provided all that,” said Goss. “Now everybody is connected.”

***

Last spring, schools created a patchwork of options for taking attendance. Students were counted present if they logged into a remote portal, turned in an assignment or talked with a teacher. But none of those strategies actually measured whether students were engaged, learning or falling behind.

One danger with such inconsistency in tracking attendance is that educators, district leaders and others are not getting a complete picture of which students are left behind as the coronavirus continues to disrupt daily school life, said Chang, of Attendance Works. Without the data, schools can’t take action to ensure an equal opportunity to learn, she said.

Doull students were asked to watch recorded videos. “Kids were on their honor, but we didn’t really keep track,” Carrigan said. About 50 students in all grade levels “did not have consistent participation.”

Across DPS, average daily attendance from March 13 (when school buildings were closed) to May 29 (the end of the school year) fell by an estimated 4%, or roughly 4,000 students, as many students went their own way, said Elias. This is a rough estimate, given varying methods used to track students. The district lost track of 67 students, she said.

At East High School, Hernandez said that approximately 40% of the students, freshman through seniors, in his sociology and honors geography classes “struggled with attendance” last spring. In the 2018-19 school year, East High recorded a chronic absentee rate of between 40% and 49% of its 2,600 students.

Several A-level students with good attendance records didn’t bother to finish out the year, Hernandez said. But other students also drifted away. One student stopped attending because he got a day job after both of his parents lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

Maud Olsthoorn said her 12-year-old daughter, who was in sixth grade at Merrill Middle School in Denver, was one of the students who left school last spring before the end of the year. Before the pandemic, Merrill’s chronic absentee rate was between 20% and 29%.

The remote learning courses assigned by the school amounted to watching videos and doing homework better suited to older students, Olsthoorn said. “It was mostly PowerPoints [slide decks]. We did not find the videos helpful and my daughter didn’t learn anything,” she said.

With frustration mounting and the coronavirus surging, Olsthoorn and her family packed up the school books and headed out-of-state, allowing their daughter to skip the last two months of video learning in favor of home schooling.

Now, with her daughter in seventh grade, Olsthoorn said the first day of live virtual classes went smoothly.

“It was a small class and they did a good job,” she said. “My daughter was not looking forward to virtual classes, but I asked her if the first day of online learning made her more motivated and she said, ‘yes, a little bit.’”

Yet Olsthoorn worries that as the days wear on, her daughter will get distracted sitting in front of a home computer for five hours per day. Even though the classes are live, she also worries that her daughter will not receive the same instruction that she would get attending school in person.

“I feel they’re reducing the workload,” Olsthoorn said. Does she worry that her daughter might get behind? “Yes, I think so,” she said.

Julia C. Martinez
Writer/Journalist
Denver, Colorado