Minnesota schools are trying to balance accountability and flexibility in tracking attendance during the pandemic

Samantha Colai’s two children, ages 6 and 9, both attend Yinghua Academy, a full-immersion K-8 Mandarin Chinese charter school in northeast Minneapolis. They chose to participate in the hybrid model this fall, which includes two days of in-person instruction and two days of home-based learning, Monday through Thursday.

Fridays, however, have become a point of confusion for many parents, including Colai.

“On Fridays there is no school – I think. On our parent website they say we have to check in on Friday,” she said. “So I still don’t really know what what we’re supposed to do.”

She already feels a bit exhausted, managing her daily attendance records through her online student information system. So resolving her confusion over whether — and why — she should mark her kids’ attendance every Friday isn’t high on her to-do list.

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“I’ve gotten to the point where I’m just trying to survive. I am a single parent with two children. So that’s the least of my concerns,” she said, adding that there was so much information coming to her at the moment that she may have just missed a communication.

The school’s executive director, Susan Berg, says they started the school year by asking students to check in as present on Fridays, but have since decided ‘it’s just as easy for us to do that. , as a school, because parents choose to commit to school on Fridays — because there’s so much going on on Fridays — we’re pretty confident they’ll attend.

Susan Berg

This list of Friday school activities includes things like office hours and small group work, initiated by teachers and students, as well as in-person practice for three orchestras and two Chinese ensembles. For kindergarteners, Friday is an in-person language immersion day, split into small cohorts throughout the building. For older students, this is a day when they can expect to receive a 15-20 minute phone call from an educator to practice their Chinese conversation skills.

As schools across the state sort through the new ins and outs of student attendance tracking, MinnPost spoke with the state’s three largest districts — Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul and Minneapolis — to see how they approach this task. The state Department of Education expanded its guidance from last spring, when everyone was thrust into a full distance learning model. But each district is tasked with finding its own balance between holding students accountable for their school attendance while considering pandemic-related circumstances.

“For in-person learning, it’s kind of the same as before,” said Wendy Hatch, spokeswoman for the department, referring to pre-COVID expectations. “When it comes to hybrid and distance learning, we always ask schools to be flexible and work with families. We know blended and distance learning can be challenging.

Back to counts

In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, attendance “is very much like it always has been,” Superintendent David Law says. Whether students participate in their school’s hybrid model or do all school from home, their teachers maintain and record daily attendance records.

Supt.  David's law

Anoka-Hennepin School District

Supt. David’s law

For high school students, this practice ends up being very similar to an “are you here, in front of me, for every hour of the day” recording, Law says. This method is made possible by the fact that all high school students receive their lessons synchronously, which means that teachers teach cohorts in person while simultaneously broadcasting their teaching live for students who are learning from home for the daytime.

For primary students, the school day is divided into a few class chunks which are also delivered to all students synchronously. Through this format, they also get daily attendance checks, initiated by their teachers.

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There is, however, at least one key difference in attendance practices this fall. An elementary teacher’s window for taking attendance for distance learning or hybrid students at home has been extended to the whole day, rather than being confined to the school day. As long as a student logs in that day for a lesson or submits an assignment for the day, they can be counted as present.

“With this virtual environment, if you got the job done in a reasonable amount of time, you went to school – specifically for families of distance learners. I mean, they asked us, “Give us some flexibility because I can’t be home with my kid while you’re teaching,” Law said, adding that beyond that, Attendance expectations are “considerably tighter” than they were last spring.

With only a week of high school student attendance data in the blended learning model, he says it’s still a little too early to get a solid read on student attendance. But he predicts that those numbers won’t be much different from what they do under normal circumstances — maybe even a little better, given that even a student who isn’t feeling their best or who can self-quarantine due to exposure to someone with COVID-19, they can still log on and homeschool.

At this point, every student who requested a school-issued device received one, Law says. “We are in a better position to provide direct, remote instruction than we have ever been,” he said.

Automated reminders, exceptions on a case-by-case basis

In Minnesota, “remote learning” has been defined as each student receiving daily interaction with a licensed teacher. There is simply no requirement for tracking and reporting this daily interaction, for accountability purposes. The primary goal of the state Department of Education with respect to attendance is to obtain an update of the districts average daily membership count – a data point used to calculate and allocate funding public and federal schools.

Data from the first full week of remote instruction for students in the St. Paul Public Schools District (for the week of Sept. 14) shows that only 85% of all students were in attendance, said Kevin Burns, gatekeeper. -word of the district. While that’s similar to the attendance total reported by the district last April, it doesn’t fully reflect who shows up for class and who doesn’t.

“District-wide enrollment isn’t final yet and won’t be final until next month,” Burns said, adding that a small percentage of students still don’t have a district-issued iPad. district, which facilitates registration. to.

Through Infinite Campus, the district’s student information system, a student—or their parent, doing so on their behalf—can check in by 11:59 p.m. each day to avoid untimely absence. If they have not marked themselves as present by 6:30 p.m., they will receive an automated telephone reminder.

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In the Minneapolis Public Schools District, elementary students receive an attendance check once a day. For high school students, this check-in happens three times per school day, says Colleen Kaibel, director of student retention and recovery for the district. Instead of six or seven class periods a day, in high school, students are enrolled on a block schedule. This means longer class periods, but fewer classes each day.

“The message to students and families was: Your school hours are the same as for in-person learning. And we want you to learn during those hours, as best you can,” Kaibel said. But we certainly understand that for some students sitting still for so long can be difficult. For some students, they may have to help younger siblings. There may be things that keep them away.

In these cases, she says, the demand from students and teachers has been to develop an attendance system that makes sense. The district has support teams – made up of school social workers and other student support staff – who are ready to follow up with families to help remove any barriers to remote school participation. . But that safety net relies on teachers to keep good attendance records.

Currently, most students should be fitted with a district-issued device. The district didn’t collect them from families late last year, so preparing for this fall meant simply focusing on closing technology gaps – distributing more devices to new students and equipping households that were sharing perhaps one device between multiple students with additional devices.

This resource, combined with a strong push from teachers and district-level support teams to conduct home visits and verify students who show up as absent on attendance records, appears to be reflected in initial attendance data.

For example, by the end of the second week, 93% of all students in the district had recorded at least one positive attendance mark per day, compared to only 87% of students who had been recorded as present during the second week of instruction. from a distance. spring.

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Attendance records are also up this fall for all student subgroups — including breakdowns by race, special education status, English learner status, and free and reduced-price lunch status.

“It’s a really good start – especially when we see the upward trend,” Kaibel said. “And for our vulnerable populations, the same thing: they have been identified, recognized and treated.

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