This story was updated at 10:10 a.m. May 1, 2020, to include new data from MCPS.
Less than 1% of Montgomery County students hadn’t been in touch with teachers or completed at least some coursework through the first three weeks of remote learning, according to data from the school district.
In a memo to school board members this week, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith wrote that 3,382 students — about 2% of the MCPS enrollment — had not logged into online classes at least once through April 24.
Of those, 930 were high school students, according to MCPS data. About 2,700 students who had not logged in at least once were black or Hispanic.
Rather than taking normal daily attendance, the district is focusing on student “engagement” by tracking the completion of assignments, attendance of live classes or virtual office hours, connecting with teachers via phone or email, and returning paper copies of assignments if families choose not to participate in online learning.
In an interview in early April, MCPS Chief Academic Officer Maria Navarro said school leaders must realize that some students still do not have access to the internet or have competing responsibilities while learning from home — like caring for younger siblings while parents work — that could affect their ability to routinely complete school work.
Any tracking of participation will not be used for punishment, but to proactively find ways to help students connect, Navarro said.
School district employees reached out to families of each of the students who had not participated in online learning and were able to connect with most. As of April 24, 670 students — less than 1% of MCPS’ student population — had not been reached at all.
The percentage of students who were not routinely logging in to classes was higher.
At the elementary level, MCPS tracks whether students make at least two log-ins to video conferencing platforms used by their teachers and at least two log-ins to apps used to assign coursework. If they have done so, they are designated as having a “digital footprint.”
As of April 17, 12% of elementary students — 9,402 students — had not met that standard. Two weeks prior, 24% of students had not reached the benchmark.
In his memo, Smith wrote that the steady increase in students consistently logging in to classes shows “as more students receive a Chromebook and/or hotspot, engagement data increases.”
MCPS has distributed more than 50,000 Chromebook laptops to students who do not have devices at home so they can participate in online learning.
For middle and high school students, MCPS tracks whether they have logged in at least four times to apps used to assign coursework. As of April 17, 4,834 secondary students — about 6% — had not met that expectation. On April 6, 21% of secondary students did not have a digital footprint.
During a meeting of the Maryland State Board of Education on Tuesday, state Superintendent of Schools Karen Salmon said statewide data on attendance is lacking, but “we do have a lot of absent students we’re trying to find.”
Salmon said many school districts in the state have reached every student, but larger school districts are “having more difficulty substantiating.”
MCPS is the largest school district in the state, with more than 166,000 students in 208 schools.
State school board member David Steiner of Baltimore City pressed Salmon for concrete data about student attendance, saying it is a critical data point to shape future decisions.
“Anything we do in the future is all going to depend on knowing as much as we can about slippages and access to learning,” Steiner said.
During a virtual community forum Wednesday night, MCPS Associate Superintendent Niki Hazel said teachers have changed teachers’ “virtual office hours” to “check-ins.” The goal is for students to log in during their teachers’ office hours to receive guidance and ask questions.
“We really want our teachers and our students to use that time that’s been provided to check in with one another,” Hazel said. ” … Even though you receive your materials on Monday, we want you checking in with your teachers … and really making sure the teachers and students have those opportunities together throughout the week.”
Ruschelle Reuben, associate superintendent in the MCPS Office of Student and Family Support and Engagement, said staff members reach out to families whose students are found to not be logging on to classes. Staff members then help families get the resources they need — laptops, internet or emotional support, Reuben said.
The University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education is tracking 100 school districts’ response to the coronavirus pandemic in several categories, including approaches to tracking attendance. MCPS is included in the research, and is among the 30 districts that report having some expectation to track student attendance and engagement.
The database does not elaborate on districts’ processes for tracking student attendance, but says some examples include asking students to log in each day to a virtual platform, asking students to download daily assignments, responding to a “question of the day,” or teachers recording attendance via phone calls to students’ homes.
Tracking attendance will be critical to shaping school districts’ reopening plans, researchers say. The data will help focus school districts’ resources to students who might experience significant learning loss due to prolonged absence from instruction.
Comprehensive data could also help school districts identify early on which students are struggling to access online learning and intervene before notable learning loss occurs.
Information released by other large school districts shows many are using approaches similar to MCPS’.
New York City schools, for example, track attendance by monitoring “daily meaningful interactions,” which could include completing an assignment, responding to a teacher’s email or participating in an online class discussion.
Denver schools let students sign an online form each day, email a photo of work they’ve done to a teacher or log in to their online learning portals to be considered “present.”
Other districts, like in Broward County, Fla., are using more straightforward approaches, requiring students to sign in to online portals each day. Parents are notified each day a student does not log in.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org