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Triaging the Student Attendance Crisis

  • Joanna
  • April 13, 2020

Rebekah Richards
Co-Founder and Chief Academic Officer – Graduation Alliance

In light of the emerging information around the COVID-19, education agencies have responded quickly to the need to not just temporarily suspend classroom-based education, but to reconvene education in a completely new and entirely remote format in a matter of weeks.

Arguably, the most pressing challenge is how to solve for student participation in remote learning. Or, more specifically, student non-participation. And the long-term consequences of student non-participation are devastating to the student, the community, and the state.

Educators have put a laser focus on ending the dropout epidemic. The change to remote education, while absolutely necessary for the safety and health of students and staff and our communities as a whole, threatens to undo all of the gains of the last decade and more.

This pandemic, with its accompanying economic consequences, is creating a new class of at-risk students: students who were succeeding in the traditional academic environment but who, when their social support structure has been removed, when the stress of their family facing unemployment or income loss dominates their home lives, have transformed beyond recognition sufficient resiliency either themselves or in their support networks to recalibrate quickly to their new reality and continue to focus on their education.

These students are likely to start the downward spiral we see in “traditional” at-risk learners as they face the consequences of inadequate credit attainment and of distress and are unable to reconcile competing economic and educational priorities. And it starts by not “showing up.”

Case in point: The Los Angeles Times reported that 15,000 seniors in LAUSD are absent and have failed to do any work since school buildings closed; 13% of students have had no contact with the district since schools shut; about one third of LAUSD high school students are not regularly logging in for classes. As more states have formally implemented their remote learning plans in recent weeks, we have seen even more sobering statistics play out in news media reports and surveys of students and teachers across the country where the majority of teachers are reporting less than half of their students are attending class.

This is the summer slide on steroids. Without quick and decisive action to triage and support these students now and a plan to re-engage them once schools reopen, public schools stand to lose these students permanently.

The key to mitigating the coming wave of dropouts is a short-term approach to deploying additional layers of human support at scale for vulnerable populations who are learning remotely. What should that look like?

  1. Student Outreach and Engagement – In the traditional education model, educators go to work to motivate teaching and learning. When students don’t “show up,” it’s a sign that the student needs more support. They need an adult who is tenacious and caring in their outreach and able to help students navigate the challenges they face, which seem insurmountable. That does not change in a remote education environment, but the scale of the need and the method of outreach does.

    This engagement must be multi-modal (e.g. phone, text, social media, snail mail, etc.) and it must be multi-generational (e.g. parents, grandparents, student, and emergency contacts). Reaching and engaging students and parents will often be the most difficult part of engagement, but it can and must be done now, before it is too late.

  2. Ongoing Human Support – Human support paired with flexibility is the key to student engagement and success. What is currently missing for many students in America, particularly low income students who may not have the parental support to replace the traditional school support structures, is a coaching/mentoring role. We call this role an Academic Coach, which has the following functions:

    • Remove barriers to engagement. The Academic Coach takes care of transactional tasks like technology questions or other process questions, simultaneously removing barriers to student engagement and allowing teachers to focus on teaching and learning.
    • Monitor Students’ Pace and Progress Across Courses. Middle and high school students typically have five or six teachers, all of whom see only what the student does (or doesn’t do) in their own class. The Academic Coach looks across classes for attendance, participation, and performance risk indicators and warning signs and intervenes quickly to get students back on track.
    • Help students adapt to the new learning environment. Academic Coaches work with students to build learning strategies, including where to work, how to manage competing priorities and schedule conflicts, and build resiliency, to name a few.
  3. Flexibility – As the nation returns closer to our previous norm, students will be expected to return to their campus. Using the outreach and support methodology outlined above, many students will return to school. However, many more students who were not at risk before COVID-19 will not make it back to the classroom as a result of the seismic shifts in their world. We must provide a variety of flexible programs to ensure we reach students where they are and provide for their continued engagement in education as the next school year approaches.