We don’t know how many Minnesota students are absent from distance learning

Recording attendance while school is out and students are doing "distance learning" is more difficult, but also more important. Photo by Getty Images.

Showing up to school is one of the most important factors in a student’s academic success — but Minnesota won’t have a reliable record of student attendance for nearly three months this year.

In a typical school day, teachers base attendance on whether students physically show up to class. During Minnesota’s “distance learning” period, which Gov. Tim Walz recently extended through the end of the school year in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19, educators are often just guessing.

The state doesn’t dictate how school districts should record attendance, so policies vary widely. Some of Minnesota’s largest districts — including Anoka-Hennepin and Wayzata —  mark every student present unless a parent says they’re “absent,” whether or not the child completes any work or connects with a teacher that day.  

Minneapolis, Rochester, Elk River and Robbinsdale school districts, which enroll a combined total of more than 79,000 students, did not provide Minnesota Reformer information about student attendance or participation beyond the policies posted on their websites.

Other districts, like South Washington County Schools, record absenteeism by noting whether students have logged on to online school sessions, or with old-fashioned phone calls.

Paradoxically, without face-to-face interaction and standardized tests during distance learning, districts need attendance records more than ever because they’re a reliable indicator of student success.  

“We may not have any other data to go by other than prior chronic absence and something about how they’re participating in this work,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of the nonprofit Attendance Works. “How do we think about meeting the educational needs of kids if we don’t have any connection to kids and don’t have any sense of what they’re learning or not learning? It will make next year much harder to plan for.”

About 15% of Minnesota students missed at least 10% of the 2018-19 school year, or roughly one day every two weeks, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Education. Students may be chronically absent for a number of reasons, from poor school climate to transportation barriers. Regular attendance is linked to higher high school graduation rates and better outcomes later in life, research shows.

Accurately counting absences is challenging during distance learning, when educators can’t see students in person. Osseo Area Schools initially mark students present unless a parent calls and reports an absence, but the district follows up with students and families if they don’t turn in work or contact a teacher for two consecutive days. If a teacher can’t reach a student, they revise their attendance record, said Anthony Padrnos, the district’s director of technology.

Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said Friday that the state has focused so far on student welfare rather than accountability for absences and asked districts to update them on efforts to reach students they haven’t heard from. Walz suggested the department look into publishing distance learning attendance data.

Not counting leads to remarkable improvement in attendance

Of the state’s 10 largest districts, eight use a combination of assignments, login activity and communication with families to keep attendance, while Wayzata and Anoka-Hennepin — the state’s largest district — assume all students are present unless parents tell them otherwise. This means a student might miss a week’s worth of assignments and still have a perfect attendance record.

Anoka-Hennepin reported fewer than 200 absences for its 39,000 students during the first two weeks of distance learning, according to district records. Fifteen of the district’s 26 elementary schools recorded zero absences during that time. By contrast, last year about 12% of Anoka-Hennepin students missed at least 10% of the school year.

District spokesperson Jim Skelly said in an email to Minnesota Reformer that teachers check in regularly with students and reach out to families if they can’t make contact with the student. The district is compiling more information about student participation, he said.

“We are confident that we are following the guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education,” Skelly said. As distance learning continues, the district will be more “assertive” to “ensure students are enrolled and involved,” Skelly added.

Wayzata schools follow the same policy. The district recorded fewer than 20 absences daily during its first two weeks of distance learning, representing roughly 0.1% of its 12,070 students, according to district records. Last year, about 8% of students missed at least 10% of the school year.

Schools have “indicated that the majority of our students are engaged in distance learning,”  Wayzata schools spokesperson Amy Parnell wrote in an email. Teachers, social workers and administrators follow up with families that are not engaged, she said. 

Parents and experts have raised concerns that school closures during the pandemic will lead to learning loss, especially for underserved students. Distance learning has proved especially difficult for low-income students and others without access to support at home.

Chang said attendance data will be critical when schools transition back to in-person instruction. During distance learning, educators should think of attendance as a record of their connections with students to ensure they don’t lose touch as well as to keep track of how much instruction students might be missing out on. 

Many districts view attendance through a compliance lens without appreciating its importance as a metric of student engagement and well-being, she said.

“Attendance should be about knowing our families are safe and healthy and okay,” Chang said.

Student participation and attendance varied widely by district during Minnesota’s first few weeks of distance learning. South Washington marked about 1,540 middle and high schoolers — roughly 14% of secondary students — absent, on average, during each week of distance learning so far, according to district records. The district is using attendance as “a tool to identify if a teacher has had communication” with a student each week, a district spokesperson said in an email to Minnesota Reformer.

The Osseo school district reported that roughly 80% of students log on to virtual learning platforms on any given day but didn’t provide detailed attendance records. That tally doesn’t account for students without internet, who are working through paper packets, or those who talked with teachers on the phone, Padrnos said.

Between 95% and 97% of students have logged on each day in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district, according to district records. Saint Paul Public Schools said 83% of students logged on at least once during the first week of distance learning, which started April 6. The district didn’t provide attendance records or updated participation data.

“We as a country are better off if our kids continue learning and stay engaged and get supported,” Chang said. “This issue of maintaining connections is so essential.”