More than half of Schenectady High School students missed 10 percent or more of school during the third quarter of the academic year, according to a presentation at Wednesday night’s school board meeting.
About 45 percent of students in first through eighth grades missed 10 percent or more of the school days at the same three-quarters mark, an absenteeism threshold known as “chronically absent,” a major negative predictor of other student outcomes. Just over 50 percent of high school students had missed that amount of school, according to district data.
District officials marked the attendance data as a flashing red light when they presented the school board the district’s third quarterly report on Wednesday.
The chronic absentee measure, or missing 18 or more days of school over the length of the school year, has long underscored a significant challenge in the district and was selected as one of a few key measures the school board regularly tracks. Absentee levels were deemed a major hurdle to improving other student outcomes, like reading and math proficiency and ultimately course completion and graduation, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but have only been exacerbated this school year.
The district’s first quarterly report of the year showed a massive surge in the number of elementary and middle school students missing a large number of school days compared to previous year: while 37 elementary students missed 20 or more days during the first quarter of the 2019-2020 school year, over 550 elementary students missed 20 or more days during the first quarter of this school year. (Each quarter of the school year includes 45 school days.)
By the school year’s halfway point, 35 percent of students in first through eighth grades had missed 18 or more days of school, and nearly 43 percent of high school students missed 18 or more days – the equivalent of 10 percent of the entire school year. (Each quarter of the year encompasses about 45 days of school.)
The district missed its end-of-year targets for chronic absenteeism by the middle of the school year: the district set a goal of 20 percent of fewer of primary students missing 18 or more days and 32 percent or fewer of secondary students missing that level of school.
The share of students hitting the chronically-absent mark has continued to climb as the end of the school year approaches, though school-by-school average daily attendance rates have improved slightly since the district established small “learning pods” that give more students opportunities to attend school in person.
When the district opened schools in the fall, secondary students were left to learn remotely due to fears over budget cuts that never came to fruition. Younger students had the choice to attend the first half of the day in person and the second half online or to join entirely-virtual classes. While the district has increased the number of students attending school in person across all grades, many students have remained virtual.
School-level daily attendance rates improved in every district building after the introduction of in-person learning pods for the students in those pods, but the improvements varied from school to school. The overall attendance rate of students in learning pods at Howe Elementary School, for example, improved from 65 percent prior to establishing the learning pods to 88 percent after the pods were created. But at Schenectady High School attendance rates for students in learning pods rose from 58 percent prior to the pods to just 62 percent after the pods were established.
District officials are preparing to welcome all students back to school buildings in the fall, relying on a multi-year infusion of direct federal aid and increased state school funding to bolster support staff, afterschool programming and other interventions aimed at mitigating learning gaps developed this school year.
District officials pointed to the disconnect inherent in virtual learning as partly driving the high absenteeism rates, while highlighting the uptick in attendance for students able to attend learning pods.
“It’s the challenges we have experienced with COVID, it’s the disconnect with virtual learning … I don’t think it’s one thing I think it’s a combination of all of those challenges and over time we are seeing that continue to show itself,” said Sara Schneller, the interim district director of planning and accountability. “Just that level of engagement, that in person connection we are seeing is increasing attendance.”