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Where are the children?

95% Average Daily Attendance. This is what most schools strive for. It accounts for the fact that most days, most students will be in school. Some may be sick, some are chronically absent, but 95% is the goal.

As schools began again this fall, we have seen attendance numbers far lower than 95%. For example, Detroit reported 78% attendance on the first week of school. There is the first challenge of actually taking attendance. Is it that the student has logged in that day? Completed an assignment? Shown up for all of their classes? Interacted with a teacher? Schools are struggling with how to track this, and honestly, there are few good methods so far, and many places are being fairly loose with tracking. Indeed, many schools have pivoted from attendance to “engagement,” essentially tracking interactions, participation and work completion.

Even if schools do figure out a way to track attendance, and find students (and their families), we have the more pressing challenge of the fact that many students are simply missing. Enrollment is dropping around the country, most remarkably at the kindergarten level. Los Angeles has approximately 11,000 students missing, for example, Chicago is down by 15,000. Many parents are keeping students home and not enrolling them in school, and many are sending them to private schools. Many parents are switching from district schools to charter schools. Others are considering more formal homeschooling options. Families have moved due to job (or life) loss or are now homeless. Some students, especially older students, are working or taking care of siblings or relatives. Technology access and problems still abound. Many older students also just find remote learning tedious and not worth it. The problem is most pronounced in low-income areas. Some parents are afraid for their children’s safety at in-person school, but this does not account for the “no showing” online. The other issue is that unlike remote learning in March, when students simply continued on with their same teacher(s), the start of the new school year brought new teacher(s) and therefore the need to forge new relationships--this time virtually.

Having so many students simply not show up to school has serious consequences. The first and most obvious one is the lost learning. Students with chronic absenteeism are more likely to not learn how to read, not learn basic math, and later, drop out of high school. Multiple school transfers are linked to declines in reading and math performance, as well as a host of social-emotional issues. Missing school at the lower grades leads to students being behind in reading, basic math, as well as social skills. The problem with attendance right now is so concerning that Massachusetts schools have begun notifying the Department of Family and Children’s services if students do not show up to virtual learning. There is no federal tracking program, so all of these schools and districts are on their own.

The other issue with low attendance and low enrollment, lesser-known to the general public, is that they are closely tied to how much money schools receive. When I worked in California, the CFO I worked with (as did many finance people at the time) referred to this as getting “butts in seats.” The problem has become so severe that Texas has temporarily decoupled attendance from funding, and California and North Carolina have also put in “hold harmless” provisions. One article called Covid-19 a “massive disruption” to enrollment. Schools are already suffering financially due to tax revenue being lower as a result of the virus, and because they also have additional costs related to the virus, such as supplying PPE, so they certainly cannot afford the attendance enrollment hit. In order to deal with the missing students' issues, some schools and districts have dispatched people to call or visit homes where students are supposed to be, to urge them to come to school (err...class). As stated above, some districts are reporting families to social services. Other districts are improving remote learning, or making plans to return students to in-person learning as soon as possible. All in all, though, I fear we may have a “lost generation” on our hands, and that we will be dealing with the consequences of the virus for years to come.

Let’s find these missing kids before it’s too late.

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