A majority of students in Denver and Jeffco are engaging in online learning, districts say

Eight-year-old gymnast Allie Vanderploeg, left, a second grader in Jeffco Public Schools, works with her brother, Kaden, 13, center, and her sister, Maddie, 11, at their home during the first day of online learning on March 17, 2020 in Lakewood.
Eight-year-old gymnast Allie Vanderploeg, left, a second grader in Jeffco Public Schools, works with her brother, Kaden, 13, center, and her sister, Maddie, 11, at their home during the first day of online learning on March 17, 2020 in Lakewood. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Most students in Colorado’s two largest school districts are participating in remote learning, according to data from the districts. But statewide, it’s harder to tell how many Colorado children are learning from home while school buildings are closed due to the coronavirus.

That’s because districts are taking different approaches to tracking student attendance. The state isn’t requiring districts to collect the data, and not all of them are. That doesn’t necessarily mean attendance is low; teachers are still checking in on their students, and some are going to great lengths to reach those who aren’t participating. 

But the lack of data means it’s difficult to get a comprehensive look at who’s learning and who’s not. And the reasons that students might not be showing up to class — lack of internet access or the need to work — raise concerns that the students who faced the steepest challenges before the pandemic will be the most behind whenever school returns to regular session.

Even the attendance data that is available contains a lot of gaps. 

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, is attempting to track the daily attendance of its approximately 92,000 students. But it hasn’t been easy. The district started remote learning on April 7 but doesn’t have reliable attendance data from the first two weeks.

Last week, 82% of students were engaged in remote learning, a district spokesperson said. By way of comparison, that’s 8.6 percentage points lower than the same time period last year, when schools were in session as normal.

But there’s a caveat to last week’s attendance number: It only reflects remote learning attendance at 68% of Denver’s more than 200 schools. Data for the rest isn’t available, as educators adjust to a new way of taking attendance in a remote environment.

“Schools continue to refine their processes and reporting,” spokesperson Winna MacLaren said. “We are exercising patience with our teachers as everyone adjusts, and learning how to best capture remote learning attendance moving forward.”

Normally, school attendance specialists track which students are present and absent. Now, Denver teachers are expected to input attendance for the previous day by 8:30 a.m. the following day. A student doesn’t necessarily have to interact with their teacher to be counted as present; completing or making progress on an assignment counts.

“We know that families are juggling a tremendous amount right now, and meaningful engagement varies from one student to the next,” MacLaren said.

Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district at 84,000 students, was one of the first districts to switch to remote learning. Its first day of online instruction was March 17. 

Jeffco teachers are expected to track daily student engagement, and schools are recording that engagement every Monday for the previous week, the district wrote in a newsletter to families. A student is counted as absent if they didn’t communicate with their teacher, work on an assignment, or otherwise engage in remote learning within the week.

Approximately 92% of students have been engaging in remote learning, district spokesperson Cameron Bell said last week. “During remote learning, our school leaders and staff have been working diligently to ensure all students are engaged,” Bell said.

Colorado’s third-, fourth-, and fifth-largest school districts are not formally taking attendance. Together, the state’s five largest districts serve more than a third of Colorado’s 913,000 students.

Douglas County School District, which serves 67,300 students, is monitoring student participation but does not have districtwide data, spokesperson Paula Hans said. Principals, teachers, and school counselors “will continue efforts to reach out to families when students are not engaging in learning opportunities,” Hans said.

In the Cherry Creek School District, which serves 56,000 students, teachers are not formally taking attendance but are responsible for checking in with their students, district spokesperson Abbe Smith said. If a student isn’t participating and a teacher can’t reach their family after several attempts, the district is “determining if welfare checks are needed,” she said. 

Aurora Public Schools, which serves 40,000 students, isn’t tracking attendance data at the district level, either, spokesperson Corey Christiansen said. At the school level, teachers and principals are “working to reach out to any students who are not regularly engaging,” he said.

Aurora did update its school board after the first week of remote learning last month. Then, officials told the board that fewer than 50% of elementary school students, about 78% of middle school students, and 82% of high school students had logged on.

Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles contributed to this report.

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