SCHENECTADY — Nearly 1,500 Schenectady City School District students missed 20 or more school days in the first quarter of the year, including a massive increase among elementary students, a sign that the longstanding attendance challenges in the district are worsening during the pandemic.
Another 1,200 students missed more than 10 days of school – but fewer than 20 – as students struggle to engage with a largely-virtual learning model in the district and grapple with the countless life difficulties caused by the pandemic. Nearly 30 percent of the district’s students missed 10 or more days. (Each quarter of the year encompasses about 45 days of school.)
“It is no secret that attendance in the current environment is a challenge,” Sara Schneller, the district’s interim director of data and accountability, said Wednesday night during a presentation to the school board.
District officials detailed the attendance data during the first quarterly report on academic and behavioral data of the year, which highlights a variety of areas.
The quarterly reports for years have highlighted the persistent attendance problems in the district and often draw urgent calls for action from board members. District officials in recent years have initiated wide-reaching communications plans to promote student attendance and established programs focused on students struggling to attend school regularly, some of which have been rolled back as part of budget cuts.
But Wednesday’s data was the latest indication that the pandemic – and the district’s shift of nearly all students in grades 7-12 to remote learning – has only worked to magnify the existing barriers to improved attendance.
Officials attributed some of the low attendance to the technical problems of getting students and families situated with computers and internet access at the start of the year, but for many students that pattern of missing school persisted. The district recently said about 100 students had fallen off the map entirely, with the district struggling to make any contact.
The chronic absentee problem in the past has largely been focused among older students, but the pandemic has exploded the number of elementary students missing extended periods of school. Last school year, 37 elementary school students missed 20 or more school days during the first quarter of the year; this year, 559 elementary students missed 20 or more days of school in the first quarter, according to the district data. At the middle school level, 306 students missed 20 or more days, compared to 64 at the same point last year.
Hamilton Elementary recorded an overall student attendance rate just below 69 percent for both its hybrid students learning partly in school and its all-virtual students, and the school recorded over 100 students as missing 20 or more days. Mont Pleasant Middle School virtual students registered average attendance of just over 70 percent in the first quarter.
The low attendance has also made it difficult for the district to judge the progress of many students. Rather than giving out failing grades, the district is marking students for “insufficient evidence” if they have not completed enough work to demonstrate to a teacher their progress in the course. Over 62 percent of the virtual students at Schenectady High School were marked with “insufficient evidence” at the end of the first quarter. Oneida Middle School had 58 percent of students marked “insufficient evidence,” while 64 percent of Central Park students and nearly 70 percent of Mont Pleasant students earned the mark.
District officials said school-based teams were working to identify the barrier to improved attendance for individual students and working to eliminate those, highlighting challenges like students helping with siblings, students with incomplete vaccinations, and technology frustrations. Teachers have said they talk to some parents who have to work and are unable to ensure their child is engaging in school throughout the day.
“Students have to be in front of us to learn,” Carmella Parente, a district administrator, said Wednesday.
The data suggested some positive takeaways on the attendance front: far more students maintained a perfect attendance record through the first quarter of this school year compared to last year – rising from 1,776 students across the district last year to 2,360 students this year. At the high school alone, over 700 students recorded perfect attendance in the first quarter, over 500 students more than last year. But on the other end of the spectrum more of their classmates are missing even more school than usual.