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School Districts Rethink Attendance Policies To Accommodate Pandemic Realities

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Simply coming to school day in, day out, happens to be one of the most important factors that determines a child's success. An average daily head count is crucial to school funding at the federal, state and local level. But as NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports, districts are having to rethink attendance policies to cover the realities of schooling in the era of coronavirus.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: All right. Good morning, everybody. I'm going to take attendance real quick.

SHAPIRO: That is a virtual roll call for a fourth-grade class in Jefferson Parish, La.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: Good morning. Buenos dias.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Buenos dias.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: And that's what it sounds like for a pre-K class in Los Angeles. In this high school in Nashville, teachers post questions to get kids to engage.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #3: Let's go ahead and post in the chat for attendance today.

KAMENETZ: And in this English class, a teacher in Philadelphia is doing the digital equivalent of sailing a paper airplane into the back row.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #4: Amari (ph), are you still with us? And if I don't see you right away, then wave at me real quick. Amari, where you at? Where you at? Where you at? Where you at?

KAMENETZ: When schools went into emergency remote learning last spring, they didn't always think about taking the role. But this fall, says Hedy Chang, the founder of the nonprofit Attendance Works...

HEDY CHANG: People are recognizing now that taking attendance every day is really important.

KAMENETZ: Back in the 2000s, Chang's research helped establish the importance of tracking what's now called chronic absenteeism. Students who miss more than 10% of the school year in kindergarten are more likely to drop out of high school and even to end up in prison. In 2015, with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, attendance became high stakes for schools as well as for students. States were told to choose at least one non-academic metric to hold schools accountable. Thirty-six states and Washington, D.C., chose to track chronic absenteeism. Now funding, even closure, is on the line for how many kids show up at school.

And today, in the age of virtual learning and new health rules for in-person learning, Hedy Chang of Attendance Works says taking attendance is both harder to do and more important than ever.

CHANG: As we move into this new form of learning and reinventing what that form looks like, as fast as we can, we need to know whether kids are showing up.

KAMENETZ: But what does it mean to virtually show up anyway? Some districts have been criticized for setting the bar too low by deciding that any interaction, even a single text between a parent and a teacher, counts as participation for a given day.

PAOLO DEMARIA: One of my favorite conversations with parents with high school students is I would ask them, you know, like, what's it like in your household? And invariably they were saying, my child doesn't wake up until noon.

KAMENETZ: Paolo DeMaria is the superintendent of public instruction for the state of Ohio. And he says right now, schools should be as flexible and understanding as possible.

DEMARIA: If they're participating and engaging, that counts, and that's important.

KAMENETZ: Misha Karigaca runs attendance for the Oakland Unified School District in California. In his district, it's a little more cut and dried.

MISHA KARIGACA: Teachers must take attended similar to in-person. They must take attendance every day for every period that's on their schedule.

KAMENETZ: But, he says, attendance is ultimately an indicator of the need to remove barriers to learning, like raising money in the community to get kids the laptops and Wi-Fi they need.

KARIGACA: We need to make sure that we are not losing any kids in any matter of fashion.

KAMENETZ: This supportive approach is part of what Hedy Chang calls a paradigm shift.

CHANG: The first thing is the teacher is creating a welcoming, engaging climate where kids feel noticed at a human level when they were missed.

KAMENETZ: Being punitive is just not the way to get students to engage, says Chang, especially when you can't compel them to physically attend school.

CHANG: I can't guarantee that just because you showed up to the virtual class on the computer that you will learn.

KAMENETZ: But, she says, if you don't show up, there's not much of a chance.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD ORANGE SONG, "IT IS WHAT IT IS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.