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What is school attendance in the era of virtual learning? The state is still trying to figure that out.

Natalia Alamdari
Delaware News Journal

When Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Division of Public Health, visited a Delaware elementary school in the spring, she was shocked by what she learned. 

By the end of the school year, only 40% of students at the school were still participating in remote learning.

The story, recounted by Rattay at a July press briefing, is echoed across the state. 

A teacher in Milford would see only about 10 of her 50 students regularly complete assignments. 

In Brandywine, a high school teacher noted only about half of her students were turning in work by the end of the year. 

Gauging remote learning participation in Delaware requires piecing together spreadsheets and reports from the teachers and counselors who tracked attendance through the tail end of the spring. 

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What was measured – if it was measured at all – can vary not only from district to district, but even from school to school.  

In short, the numbers are extremely limited when it comes to knowing how many kids were actually participating in remote learning – and to what degree. 

Teachers hope the fall will be different, and district leaders assure parents it will be. 

In a matter of weeks, thousands of Delaware kids will start the new school year, with the majority once again learning from behind computer screens. The state and school leaders say that this time around, remote learning attendance requirements will be stricter than in the spring. 

But what is “attendance” in the era of remote learning? It’s a question the state is still trying to figure out, said Secretary of Education Susan Bunting. 

Delaware Secretary of Education Susan Bunting speaks to the media during a briefing on the current status of the coronavirus pandemic in Delaware Tuesday, July 14, 2020, at the Carvel State Building in Wilmington.

“Does it mean that a student is sitting in front of the computer from 7:30 to 2:30 every day?” said Steven Lucas, Lake Forest School District superintendent. “If that is what a full day of attendance means, how do we document that? They’re not coming in the building every day. Teachers can take attendance remotely, but who’s to say kids aren’t getting attendance taken and then checking out?" 

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Student attendance requirements are written into state law. But Delaware statutes weren’t written with a pandemic in mind. With many districts opting for a remote start to the school year, the state is still crafting attendance policies for the fall.

But reworking attendance policies means answering a key question: Should the state mandate consistent requirements for every district? Or should districts be able to decide how that gets measured?

And in a state where the Department of Education is known for offering guidance and emphasizing local control, that is "exactly the debate that is still going on," Bunting said. 

In the spring, Bunting said, many districts tracked student participation in some way, whether it was through measurements like Zoom attendance or assignment completion.

But interviews with teachers from across the state tell a story of a spring semester that was haphazard, inconsistent and lacking accountability. 

Starting on March 16, the state stopped requiring schools to report attendance, Department of Education spokesperson Alison May said. With that decision, many schools stopped requiring teachers to take attendance. 

Across the state, a patchwork of remote learning strategies emerged in the spring – from Zoom lessons to printed packets. 

With these differing remote learning policies came a second patchwork of attendance measurements, sometimes even varying within a school. 

Lockers line empty hallway in school building.

“We didn’t really [take attendance],” a Brandywine elementary school teacher said. “It was a disaster. If we had kids who weren’t showing up or doing work, the administrators sort of tracked them down and had talks with them. But in the end, there was no accountability.” 

No teachers in this story wished to be named, for fear of job loss.

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In Colonial, teachers based attendance on whether students participated in Zoom sessions. But those spreadsheets didn’t account for students who skipped Zoom sessions but still completed assignments, one counselor said. 

In Christina, one teacher would evaluate weekly attendance holistically, based on student participation in Zoom lessons and assignment completion, reporting those numbers to school administrators. But policies differed from school to school, she said. 

A teacher in Indian River would take attendance only for small group sessions. Whether a student was marked present each week depended on assignment completion.

And in Milford, teachers weren’t told to take attendance at all. Instead, students needed to complete a certain number of assignments by the end of the year to be marked as present. 

“I personally kept attendance,” a Milford middle school teacher said. “Then I realized, what am I keeping this for? It doesn’t matter. Things weren’t being graded.”

Across the state, teachers and administrators feared penalizing students for lacking internet access. 

“The first half of the time was spent trying to get kids online at all,” a Brandywine teacher said. “And after that was dealt with, then it was like, ‘OK, who’s just not showing up?” 

The state hopes to release more information about attendance this week. 

Schools will need some sort of attendance requirements come September, Bunting said, not only for the benefit of students but to establish the basis of state education funding for the year. 

School funding in Delaware is based on enrollment numbers in each school – the number of students present determines things like how many teachers and how many administrators the state will fund per building. 

Normally, the unit count occurs at the end of September. But this year, it has been delayed to Nov. 13, Bunting said.  

“We need extra time to make sure we have a firm handle on how many students are involved in learning from that school,” she said. “But in many cases, those students will not be in those school buildings. This has to be something that is agreed upon from the top to the bottom. It translates into money for the functioning of schools.” 

Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or nalamdari@delawareonline.com.