Newark reports 89% attendance rate in September as some students disconnect during remote learning

Screen shot of Superintendent Roger León and others at a Newark district virtual forum.
“Attendance is a very big issue,” Newark Superintendent Roger León said during a virtual forum Monday. (Facebook/Alliance for Newark Public Schools)

Newark students missed more class days this year during the first month of school than they did last year, district data shows, reflecting an attendance challenge that has frustrated schools nationwide during remote learning. 

Newark’s average daily attendance rate was about 89% in September, roughly 6 percentage points below the rate for that month last year, according to districtwide data. Attendance varied widely among schools last month, with some boasting near-perfect attendance while nearly a dozen schools reported that students missed 20% or more of school days.

Newark is one of many districts across the country that have reported lower-than-usual attendance since starting this school year with at least some students learning from home. Despite district efforts to close the digital divide, many students still have trouble getting online at home or are juggling other duties during the school day, including jobs or babysitting siblings.

Newark officials laid out the district’s remote learning attendance policy during a parent workshop. (Newark Public Schools)

Recognizing the difficulties some students face making it to online classes during the day, the district has established a generous attendance policy. Students who don’t attend live virtual classes still can be marked present if they turn in work later or make contact with their teachers, officials say. Even with that leeway, 11 schools had attendance rates ranging from 64% to just under 80%.

“If schools are in the 60s and 70s, it’s a serious issue,” said Peter Chen, a policy counsel at Advocates for Children of New Jersey who has studied school attendance. “It suggests strongly that there’s a large fraction of their student bodies that aren’t participating, or aren’t able to participate, fully in school.”

Low attendance in September is especially worrisome, Chen added, because attendance typically peaks that month before tapering off later in the year. In Newark, about half of students who are absent two to four days in September end up missing nearly a month of school by the end of the academic year, officials said.

“That’s a warning light,” Chen said, “that lots of students are having trouble and need help.”

Despite the overall slump in attendance last month compared with the previous year, some schools got most students to show up for online classes or at least submit work. About 20 of the 62 schools included in the data had attendance rates at or above 94% and three had rates above 98%.

Chalkbeat obtained the September attendance numbers through a public records request. A district spokesperson did not respond to questions about the data, including how the district is supporting schools with poor attendance.

The district also did not share data on chronic absenteeism, which tracks students who miss 10% or more of school days. Even at schools with high attendance rates, many students can be chronically absent.

Superintendent Roger León did not discuss the early attendance figures at last month’s school board meeting. However, the issue came up at a virtual forum he participated in Monday evening, which was hosted by a coalition of education advocacy groups called the Alliance for Newark Public Schools.

Yvette Jordan, a history teacher at Central High School, said during the forum that “the attendance challenge” can be overwhelming for teachers. Central’s attendance rate was 80.5% last month. Like other teachers, Jordan said she tries to track down absent students, but she hasn’t heard from some since last school year.

“There is a very deep concern about attendance,” she said.

León echoed her concern, but did not say how he will try to raise overall attendance during remote learning, which the district has extended through January.

“Attendance is a very big issue and we’re very concerned about how well our students are doing online,” he said. He reminded students that they can still be marked present on days they miss class if they submit assignments.

Newark reported a 99.8% attendance rate during remote learning last spring, which parents and teachers said was implausible considering that many students didn’t have laptops or home internet. The state allowed districts to mark all students present during remote learning unless a district “knowingly determines a student was not participating.”

The district’s numbers are more credible this fall, though they still rely on a broad definition of attendance. Even if students do not attend a live video class or complete the day’s work, they can still be counted as present if they simply communicate with a teacher, said Edwin Mendez, the district’s attendance director.

“If a student is unable to log on,” he said during a parent workshop last month, “we want to give that student an opportunity to still be marked present if we’re able to contact the student that day, if the student does a check in.”

Many parents and educators welcome the flexibility. They note that some students miss online class for reasons beyond their control, such as unreliable Wi-Fi or glitchy video platforms. Yet a few teachers said the loose approach might give some students the impression that class is optional.

“They know the system,” said one teacher, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “If they hand in the homework, you can’t mark them absent.”

While the district is showing students some grace, it’s not taking a hands-off approach to attendance, Mendez said. School and central office staffers call, text, email, and message families through apps when students miss class, he said. If that doesn’t work, they try reaching students through social media, home visits, or talking to their friends and neighbors. Once they make contact, district employees try to figure out what’s keeping students from showing up.

“We focus on what is impeding the child from logging in or participating or handing in work,” Mendez said during the workshop, “instead of being in any way punitive.”

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