1 in 4 Chicago elementary and middle students came for in-person learning

At Miles Davis Magnet Academy in Chicago, a teacher juggles simultaneous instruction in a classroom where some fourth graders are learning in person and others are learning remotely.

More than 49,000 Chicago students reported to classrooms for in-person instruction at least one day in February and March, about a quarter of eligible elementary and middle schools students district-wide. 

Officials said schools welcomed back about 73% of the students they expected, an attendance drop-off that mirrors a similar pattern earlier in the year when fewer than expected prekindergarten and special education cluster students returned to classrooms. 

The district revised down several times the number of students it anticipated. In December, officials said they expected about 77,000 elementary and middle school children, or 37% of students, to return, but by March that number had fallen to 60,700. 

Principals said some families changed their minds for a multitude of reasons, including last minute hesitations over safety risks, child care complications, and schedule changes prompted by flux in teacher assignments as some educators continue to work remotely.  

The data released Friday also shows a concerning number of absent students: 6% of students who signed up for in-person learning did not appear at buildings or online, and 7% of students who selected to continue remote instruction likewise did not show up anywhere. Prekindergarten and some special education students were absent at twice that average, with 12% and 13% of in-person and remote students not attending school last week, respectively. 

The district also reported higher-than-average rates of absenteeism among homeless students and children in temporary living situations, with 13% and 15% of those expected in-person and remote students not attending school last week, respectively.

But officials were still optimistic Friday, saying that student attendance increased the longer school buildings were open, a trend they said was a positive sign for engagement with in-person learning. 

“While in-person attendance rates aren’t comparable to pre-pandemic levels, the district is encouraged to see an increase in school-based attendance the longer students have that option available, especially among our youngest learners and students in cluster programs,” schools chief Janice Jackson said in a statement. 

As the district sets an April 19 target reopening date for high schools, she said officials “look forward” to welcoming back additional students.

Similar to earlier data, white students had the highest in-person attendance rates for the week ending March 12, at 89%, followed by Asian students (83%) and Latino students (77%). About 60% of Black students who signed up for in-person learning returned to classrooms. Of the Black students who did not return to classrooms, 31% appeared in virtual classrooms, and 9% were absent.

Older students also attended in-person learning at higher rates on the first day of school, with 55% of prekindergarten and some special education students on the Feb. 11 start date, 67% of kindergarten to fifth grade students attending on the March 1 start date, and 72% of middle school students coming into schools on March 8. 

Calculating average daily attendance is a complicated endeavor, since many elementary and middle students in Chicago Public Schools who have selected to attend school in person are only reporting to classrooms two days a week. (Prekindergarten and students in special education programs for children with complex disabilities can attend school in person five days a week.) Daily in-person attendance ranged from 27,320 to 31,692 students on any given day during the week of March 8, according to the data.  

For in-person students, that meant attendance ranged from 72% to 74% that week. For students learning remotely during that period, the attendance rate was higher, around 93%. 

Officials said they hope more adult access to vaccinations and stable COVID-19 test positivity rates will mean more families sign up for in-person learning for the fourth quarter that starts mid-April. 

The district now is surveying families on whether they want to return in the fourth quarter; for the first time, high school families are being asked to select a learning preference. The district’s set April 19 target reopening date is pending the outcome of negotiations with the city’s teachers union.

Across Illinois, the vast majority of students have shifted from learning fully remotely toward having a choice of returning to classrooms. The state tracks only options districts offer to students, not actual numbers of students in classrooms.

As of March 19, the latest statewide data available, only 1 in 5 Illinois students currently has the option of attending school in-person full time. About 70% of students have the option of in-person learning on a hybrid or part-time basis; 11% were fully remote. 

Chicago reopened its elementary and middle schools in March after a protracted battle with its teachers union. The agreement spelled out a vaccination timetable for educators, established school safety committees to help monitor risk, and set a citywide protocol for how many COVID cases would force the closure of a particular school or district. 

The agreement also laid out a protocol for testing students in the ZIP codes with the highest COVID positivity rates. Officials told Chalkbeat that testing started this week. 

Chicago Public Schools reported 45 COVID cases among adults and 20 cases among children so far in March as more classrooms reopened. Since March 2020, when schools initially closed for learning but continued to provide free meals and supplies, the district has reported 949 school-related adult cases — including cafeteria workers, janitors, and other staff who’ve kept buildings running — and 52 cases among children. 

The pandemic has upended traditional attendance patterns. Analysis of the data showed that about 15,000 students did not respond to district surveys for third quarter, leading to uncertainty in early attendance counts. 

Some students who signed up for in-person learning did not report to campuses but continued to learn remotely, but some students did not show up at all. 

Principals told Chalkbeat they are working phones, sending flurries of emails and social media messages, and even trekking to homes to try to pin down students and get them back in the fold. There appear to be myriad reasons. 

School leaders said they encountered families who’ve lost multiple adults to COVID-19, and heard about working parents who had to send their children to relatives outside the city or state. Families reported that internet issues continue to contribute to disengagement from school. 

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