(Reuters) - Many U.S. schools have stopped taking attendance since the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes online, but one South Florida district has remained committed to the scholastic task, saying it is a way to keep students safe and productive while learning at home.
Broward County, outside Miami, has used daily attendance as a tool to quickly find students who were unable to participate in online classes because their households lacked laptops or internet access. Checking attendance has also helped officials identify those children in families particularly hard hit by the pandemic, whether through illness or financial setbacks.
“A lot of kids are in home situations that are even more stressed than they have ever been,” said Robert Runcie, superintendent of the district, the sixth-largest in the United States, with 330 schools and 270,000 students. The district closed its school buildings on March 16 and launched online classes on March 30.
“If we’re not tracking their attendance,” he said, “then in some ways we are neglecting our responsibility to make sure those kids are safe.”
That puts Broward County in the minority. Only a third of 100 school districts tracked by the Center on Reinventing Public Education in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic have said they are still taking attendance.
A handful of states, including California and Texas, have waived average daily attendance requirements for state funding. In those states, districts are now receiving state money even if they have stopped monitoring attendance.
Many large districts, including Los Angeles and Chicago, have stopped taking daily classroom attendance. Others track students only when they download materials, complete assignments or answer daily questions online.
“Teachers are not necessarily in contact with students every day,” said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, an organization that tracks attendance policy.
“If your remote learning strategy is just sending packets home, then what’s attendance?” she said.
By contrast, Broward students are counted as present after logging in to an online portal, a single entry point to the district’s suite of educational applications. Teachers also count students who are participating online and measure their engagement.
A student is marked absent if he or she fails to log in, triggering a response from school officials who will call parents, family members and even friends in hopes of tracking down and reconnecting with the pupil.
That effort has exposed the so-called digital divide among students. Attendance data, for example, showed 13 students who live in a disadvantaged neighborhood of Broward County were absent from school three weeks ago.
When the district discovered the students lived in households without internet service, it dispatched a technician to bring them mobile hot spots, enabling them to log in to virtual classes.
“We will not leave a stone unturned,” said Laurel Thompson, the district’s director of student services. “Every child matters.”
Since the pandemic struck, the district has distributed more than 90,000 laptops and mobile hot spots, officials said.
But some students have struggled to attend online classes as they are now working full-time to help support their struggling families, dealing with sick family members or living in unstable homes. When they appear absent, the district has dispatched social workers to connect the student with support services.
Frequent absence from class is usually “a symptom of something more,” Thompson said. “We have an ethical responsibility and a moral mandate to serve these students and their families.”
The effort to track down and help absent students through attendance taking has been fruitful, Broward officials said. In recent weeks, the district has reduced its number of non-engaged students from 6,600 to 1,700. Overall, the district’s daily attendance during the pandemic is at 91%, or 3 percentage points lower than normal.
In one case, Broward second-grade teacher Vivian Lewis noticed during her daily attendance-taking that one of her students was absent from online classes. After phone calls to his Spanish-speaking family, she was able to help him get logged in to virtual classes.
“I felt like he was thinking, ‘Where’s everybody? Where’s my teacher? Why isn’t she checking on me?’” Lewis said. “I could envision him ... being scared.”
Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis