As Joicki Floyd called one student after another last week, she heard stories of unbearable pain inflicted by the pandemic.
The mother of one of Floyd’s students at Weequahic High School answered the phone crying: her husband had just died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Another family had lost four relatives, “one day after another, four days in a row,” Floyd said.
Other students were engulfed in family conflicts that have intensified during the statewide lockdown. One student said her mother kicked her out of the house; another ran away.
Over the course of five hours, Floyd called all 94 students in her English classes. At least 10 still did not have laptops or reliable internet at home nearly a month after the pandemic forced school buildings to close. Another six didn’t answer — she hasn’t been able to reach them since the shutdown began.
“I can’t find them,” Floyd said, her voice breaking. “I was thinking about going to their houses, but now I can’t because it’s just too dangerous. It’s like, ‘OK, where are you?’”
Getting every student to attend class has never been easy, especially in districts such as Newark, where more than a quarter of students were chronically absent last school year, often due to housing, transportation, and health challenges. But the pandemic has complicated attendance like never before, creating daunting new obstacles for students and the educators working overtime to reach them.
Some students are missing out on remote learning due to a lack of internet-enabled devices, babysitting duties, and jobs that are urgently needed as parents’ paychecks vanish. And educators are relying on phone calls, texts, and social media messages to check on absent students who can no longer be cornered in the hallway or visited at home. These new virtual attendance challenges have underscored the difficulty many students face getting to class even under normal circumstances and the vital role schools play in easing those burdens.
“When you’re in school, you have all these human resources available to you, various people you can interact with who can keep you connected and motivated and on track,” said Tanya Maloney, an education professor at Montclair State University. All of that support is not easy to replicate remotely: “It is not the case that we can just pick up school and put it in homes.”
Across the country, school districts are taking different approaches to tracking attendance during the pandemic. Some districts are marking present students who log on to online platforms or submit work, while others have teachers checking in with families but are not formally recording daily attendance.
New Jersey has given districts some wiggle room. State guidance issued last month says that, when public health emergencies force schools to operate remotely, all students can be marked as present “unless the district knowingly determines a student was not participating” in remote learning.
Newark, the state’s largest district, has not made public its remote attendance policy. Spokeswoman Nancy Deering said all teachers are recording attendance, and students who complete daily assignments are marked as present. But several teachers told Chalkbeat they had different methods for taking attendance, such as recording which students type “present” or similar messages on Google Classroom each day.
The inconsistencies could pose challenges for tracking district-wide attendance during the extended school shutdown, making it hard to know how many students are regularly participating in remote learning — and how many are falling behind. Asked what has been the average daily attendance rate during remote learning, Deering said the district is “unable to calculate at this time.”
At University High School, 12th-grade English teacher Stephanie Jones posts a video message to students in Google Classroom each morning and marks as present everyone who writes a response. (In a recent message, she addressed the difficulties many face: “There may be moments when you’re on a roll, and there are other moments when you can barely pull yourself together.”) About 75-80% of students respond each day, Jones said.
She’s found many reasons why some students can’t engage in remote learning. Some hold jobs at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores that have remained open during the lockdown but shortened their hours of operation, forcing students to work during the day. Others are caring for their younger siblings in lieu of their parents, who are essential workers. And still others have to share laptops with siblings or take turns using the free Wi-Fi that companies have provided during the pandemic, which some students say cannot accommodate multiple users in the same household.
Jones said her school asks teachers to record attendance by 5 p.m. But she will sometimes update the tally as late as 11 p.m. to include students who cannot get to their studies until late at night.
“You’ve got to be flexible,” she said. “It’s like nothing they’ve ever had to deal with before.”
Some teachers report that the students they worry about most in school are not logging on at home. A seventh-grade math teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said she takes attendance two ways: by recording students who post a morning greeting in Google Classroom and those who attend the virtual classes she holds on Zoom three days a week. On an average day, she does not hear from nearly a quarter of her 59 students. The absent students tend to be the lowest-performers, who struggled in class before the shutdown, she said.
“Those that are coming online now are those who actually listened in the classroom,” she said. “The ones that never paid attention, they’re the ones who aren’t coming to the Zoom class, and they’re not doing their work on Google Classroom.”
The pandemic has forced teachers and other school staffers to find new ways to support students. The attendance team at Central High School helped coordinate the distribution of laptops to students who needed them, said Shawn McCray, the school’s attendance counselor and longtime basketball coach. Then the team began contacting students who had not logged on. By last week, all but 11 of Central’s nearly 800 students had been accounted for, McCray said, though he could not say how many students were logging on daily.
McCray has gone to great lengths to reach absent students, including messaging them on social media and asking players on his basketball team to check in on their friends. He even went to a local Home Depot to speak with a student who hasn’t been able to login because of work. McCray, who lives near Central, normally could find students hanging out in the neighborhood or the school hallways and coax them to go to class.
“It’s kind of tough now because I don’t have that contact,” he said. “You don’t know what these kids are doing.”
Floyd, the Weequahic High School teacher, has been similarly resourceful in tracking down missing students. She’s asked her son, who is a high school senior, to message students on Instagram when they don’t sign in remotely. And she keeps calling her students to remind them that even while they’re apart, she’s still around.
“I’m going to continue to do what I do,” she said. “My phone will always be on.”