Students in K-12 schools have faced heightened barriers to attending classes since the beginning of the pandemic. Issues related to broadband access, student and family health and a lack of social and emotional support have all contributed to falling attendance rates.
Vanessa Wrenn, director of the digital teaching and learning division at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, said districts across the state have been working diligently to keep students in the classroom by maintaining student-teacher relationships and increasing broadband access.
As of December, 19 percent of North Carolina students on average weren’t attending school at least four days a week, according to the NCDPI, meaning just 81 percent of students were attending regularly. In a normal school year, average daily attendance across the state is around 95 percent.
Orange County Schools has had an average attendance rate of 94.78 percent this school year, according to data from the OCS Accountability Department. Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools reports 87.6 percent of students having satisfactory attendance this school year, meaning attending 95 percent or more of school days.
Sue Fothergill, director of strategic programming at Attendance Works, said economically disadvantaged — Black and Brown students and students with disabilities — generally experienced higher rates of chronic absence nationwide pre-pandemic, and this inequity has worsened over the past year.
CHCCS data for the 2020-21 school year shows this inequity. Just 73.1 percent of students with disabilities have satisfactory attendance, compared to 89.4 percent of students without disabilities.
Black students in CHCCS also have higher rates of absence. Seventy-two percent of Black students have satisfactory attendance compared to 92.5 percent of white students, and 8.4 percent of Black students have severe chronic absence compared to 1.2 percent of white students.
Seventy-eight percent of Latinx students have satisfactory attendance, and 3.9 percent have severe chronic absence, which means they attend less than 80 percent of school days.
Efforts to Improve
Tracking student attendance is required by North Carolina law, Wrenn said, and helps schools identify students who need support at an early stage. Tracking this data has become more difficult due to all of the different learning methods accommodated during the pandemic, she said, and North Carolina school districts have had to be creative with how they track and define attendance — especially during remote learning.
“Our school districts have tracked attendance in many different ways,” she said. “Some have daily check-ins or are counting students present if they complete their daily assignments. Or they may count any type of two-way communication between the student and the teacher that showed they were present.”
Wrenn said maintaining communication and building teacher-student relationships helps with attendance rates. She said during remote learning, teachers have set up virtual office hours or contacted parents and students by phone to maintain communication. She also said communicating by text has been successful statewide.
Fothergill said the importance of building these teacher-student relationships cannot be overstated.
“There are structural ways in which we can help ensure that these relationships are put in place and sustained,” she said.
Fothergill said strategies like mentoring or after-school programs are ways children can form meaningful and deep relationships with peers and adults.
During remote learning, Wrenn said addressing broadband access issues has been key to improving attendance. OCS piloted a mobile bus-based WiFi solution for families, and Wrenn said over 300,000 mobile hotspots have been provided at the state level.
Fothergill said addressing issues like broadband access early on can help ensure students don’t develop chronic issues with absences. She also said attendance is a leading indicator of general wellness, and strategies to address attendance also need to address issues like physical and emotional health.
N.C. Rep. Graig Meyer (D – Caswell, Orange), spent 16 years working in North Carolina’s public schools, including as the former director of student equity for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. He said he has concerns about making sure children get caught up on any lost learning that may have occurred over the past year.
Meyer said he's is working on a bill that would give teachers 11-month contracts, so they could serve students for a longer period of time through the summer.
“We have to help students catch up over the course of multiple years, and we have to use our time creatively,” he said. “We may need extended school days, summer learning opportunities and tutoring or mentoring programs. And we need to have an approach that is individualized to each kid.”
At a state and nationwide level, Fothergill said schools need access to adequate and equitable school funding to implement strategies that increase attendance.
“Low attendance is likely to create a situation where students are not earning the grade levels that we would expect or want for them,” she said. “It’s something that’s really important to address.”
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