Remote Learning Progress Report: The barriers to taking attendance

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Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 8/9/2020 8:00:26 PM

When Sunapee Middle-High School’s attendance rate is published in the fall, principal Sean Moynihan expects that despite the switch to remote learning, his school’s numbers might be even higher than they were last year. This is a bold statement: The school’s 2018-19 attendance rate was 96.1% – one of the highest in the state.

But Moynihan said that the numbers coming out this fall are probably misleading. Not only are they likely to be artificially high thanks to the district’s relaxed attendance policies during remote learning last spring, the numbers obscure a bigger issue – how much harder his teachers, staff, and guidance counselors had to work to stay in touch with students during remote learning, even with the benefit of laptops and internet.

In preparation for families’ and educators’ return to school in August, the Granite State News Collaborative examined how attendance policies played out across the state last spring.

To do that, we selected four districts – Sunapee, Bedford, Franklin, and Manchester – that represented extremes in terms of their size and recent attendance rates. For each, we examined how their attendance policies were defined and implemented.

Our investigation showed that Sunapee’s experience echoed a trend across all four districts. Even though digital technology was critical in allowing many districts to keep in touch with their students, for some of the state’s most disadvantaged students even these expensive tools were insufficient. In each district, guidance counselors and social workers played a key role in maintaining lines of communication between teachers and their students, raising questions about the role that these staff members will play in the coming school year.

In Bedford, maintaining engagement

Bedford and Sunapee both had a laptop for every student and a strong level of community support going into remote learning. But compared to Sunapee, Bedford maintained a more rigid definition of student attendance, requiring more careful monitoring of students even though the Bedford School District’s enrollment was more than 10 times larger.

Last year, Bedford High School had the lowest dropout rate of any high school with 1,000 or more students. The district had one of the highest attendance rates in the state as well.

As in many districts, Bedford’s Chromebooks were used to deliver instruction and check attendance. At Bedford High, superintendent Michael Fournier said, students were required to virtually check in to each class during the timed block the class was taught. The standard was more relaxed at the elementary level, said one teacher, who was told to give a student full attendance if a student did any work at all in a day.

The Chromebooks were so integral to remote instruction that when asked to imagine remote learning without Chromebooks, Bedford elementary school teacher Kate Davison just laughed. “Oh my god, I would die,” she said. “Without access to technology, remote learning is almost impossible.”

But as Davison had feared before remote learning began, even with this technology the transition was harder on some students than others.

The students who struggled the most were often those whose families had multiple school-age kids and/or parents who were working from home. Over time, some of these students became distant and difficult to re-engage, despite the continued efforts of the parents, teachers, and staff.

Even though Bedford, like many districts, had protocols in place to help identify and support students like these, Fournier said that these issues were likely faced in many districts – no matter this level of preparation. Although there will always be a subset of students who are highly engaged, he said, districts are “also going to have a subset of students who are really going to have a difficult time engaging without somebody actively investing time and effort working with them to make sure that they’re engaged.”

In Franklin, counselors played big role

Unlike Bedford and Sunapee, Franklin went into remote learning without a strong track record for keeping students in school. But thanks to recent investments in technology and a speedy transition to online learning, superintendent Daniel Legallo said that the district had no more issues with attendance than in previous years.

Despite being a relatively small school (2018 fall enrollment was 289), in 2018-19 Franklin High School had one of the highest annual dropout rates in the state, at 4.67%. Franklin School District also had one of the state’s lowest district-wide attendance rates, at 89.1%.

During remote learning, the Franklin School District did not try to define what a student had to do to be counted as present. Instead, Legallo said, “we marked everybody present for the whole time.” Rather than having teachers spend time coming up with ad hoc rules, Legallo said he wanted to make sure they focused on instruction.

Thanks to strategic budgeting and grants in the last five years, before remote learning, the Franklin School District already had Chromebooks for in-school use by all of its students in grades 1-12. When the district got word from the governor that remote learning would start in the middle of March, the district distributed laptops right away.

“We figured we were gonna lose more kids if we waited,” Legallo said. The district’s IT department kept track of every student’s activities on the computer and identified those students who were not engaging in class.

As in Sunapee and Bedford, Franklin’s guidance counselors played a key role in following up with students who were not engaging. Because Franklin is in an economically challenged area, “we have more than our fair share of instances where [teachers] have to make a special effort to reach out to students,” he said. As a result, the guidance counselors went into remote learning having already worked with many of the students. “We knew our kids,” Legallo said, “and we knew our families.”

Thanks in large part to the work of the counselors – in conjunction with teachers, staff, and parents – Legallo estimated that remote learning did not make attendance any more of an issue than it was in previous years.

Attendance rates for other school districts in central New Hampshire included Allenstown (92.6%), Bow (95.3%), Chichester (95.4%), Concord (94.4%), Epsom (94.8%), Hillsboro-Deering (92.9%), Hopkinton (96%), John Stark (92.8%), Kearsarge (96.3%), Merrimack Valley (92.5), Pembroke (93.8%), Pittsfield (92.2%) and Shaker Regional (93.8).

In Manchester, laptop shortage was a challenge

Manchester, with a total enrollment of more than 13,000, is the state’s largest district. Like Franklin, Manchester has recently faced challenges keeping students in school.

In 2018-19, the Manchester School District had one of the state’s lowest attendance rates (92%). Manchester Central, the district’s largest high school and one of the largest high schools in the state, had the highest annual dropout rate (3.75%) of any school with more than 1,000 students.

But unlike Sunapee, Bedford, or Franklin, according to Assistant Superintendent Amy Allen, the district had only one computer for every three or four students. During remote learning last spring, many Manchester teachers distributed assignments as paper copies.

Despite not being able to connect with all its students online, the Manchester School District still required daily attendance to be taken. Typically, if a teacher didn’t hear from a student for two or three days, the teacher would notify the school’s administration, which would then begin reaching out to the student and the student’s family.

But despite the district’s efforts to reach out to some of the district’s most at-risk students, some of the challenges posed by remote learning were not easily overcome. Joan Vallieres, an occupational therapist at Manchester’s Gossler Park and Parker-Varney Elementary Schools, emphasized that she thought the superintendent “really tried hard,” but “there was a lot of frustration” from some of the families she encountered.

Vallieres remembered one family in particular. Even though the student had a laptop at home, thanks to Title I funding, the student still struggled to engage with school. When Vallieres or her colleagues would have video calls with the student, they would see in the background that “it was just chaos. Kids running around and screaming.” Vallieres remarked that it must have been “just overwhelming for the parents.”

This is where the social workers stepped in. If a student dropped out of touch, a staff social worker would work with the student to try to help them re-engage, no matter the issue. But even with this additional attention, Vallieres remembered, sometimes it was difficult to keep the students participating in school.

Gossler and Parker-Varney serve approximately 500 students each. Each school lists one social worker in its staff directory.

Tightening policiesfor the fall

As schools plan to reopen, attendance policies are being revisited by school administrators across the state.

Sunapee and Bedford do not expect to significantly change their attendance policies from last spring. Sunapee is planning to return to fully in-person instruction. Bedford will continue to track daily attendance while offering a mix of in-person and remote instruction.

As of July 29, the Franklin School District had not yet published its reopening plans. In an interview on July 21, Superintendent Legallo suggested that when the district reopens next fall, it would likely include more live instruction and more frequent attendance checks.

The Manchester School District is expected to decide on its reopening plans this week, and is expected to propose that at least some instruction be delivered remotely. The district is expected to request a $1 million bond to help further develop the district’s technology, including more laptops for remote learning.

None of the four districts plan to hire additional guidance counselors or social workers.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit