NYC’s remote learning attendance shows persistent racial disparities

A quarter of schools where the majority of students are Black and Hispanic had relatively lower engagement this past spring.

This past spring, when school buildings were closed, attendance meant different things at different New York City public schools. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Students at schools with large Black and Hispanic populations were much less likely to interact with their teachers regularly this past spring, when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered campuses, a City Council analysis released Thursday shows. 

The trend was mostly in line with attendance data from the year before — when buildings were open and offering in-person classes — highlighting persistent racial disparities when it comes to absenteeism. The stakes for getting students to show up are high: Low attendance is one of the strongest predictors as to whether someone will graduate high school.

Comparing year-over-year data, however, comes with a major caveat. This past spring attendance meant different things at different New York City public schools. Students could be marked “present” for logging in to their Zoom classes, for filling out a form on the school’s website, or even for answering a teacher’s phone call. The data does not necessarily reflect students’ engagement with coursework. In 2019, students who showed up to school for at least one class period were marked “present.”

The analysis shows a quarter of schools where the majority of students are Black and Hispanic had what the City Council defined as “low engagement” this past spring. That means that on a median daily basis at most 79% of students interacted with a teacher or class. By contrast, just 3% of schools where fewer than half of its students are Black and Hispanic had similarly low engagement.

Education department officials said the data revealed stubborn racial disparities. So, too, did others working to improve public education in New York City.

“Most importantly, we are left with two urgent questions: What is the city doing differently right now to ensure that the same students who have been underserved before and during the pandemic are actually experiencing quality remote instruction this fall?” Ian Rosenblum, executive director of Education Trust-New York, wrote in an email. “And will the city commit to release meaningful attendance, engagement, and instructional data on a regular basis this fall so parents and the public can see what is going [on]?”

For its analysis, the council used 79% as the threshold for “low engagement” because it represents the bottom fifth of schools when it comes to teacher-student interactions. Using that same bottom-fifth metric, the council put low attendance at 89% or less the previous year, when school buildings were open.

Students with less than 90% attendance are more likely to have lower test scores and less likely to graduate high school, according to school officials.

Nathaniel Styer, a spokesperson for the education department, said the data revealed “persistent racial inequities that exist in our schools continued during the pandemic,” and a reason why the city pushed for in-person learning this fall. 

“We know we must do more, and school leaders, attendance teachers, social workers, and district staff are redoubling efforts to remove any barriers standing in the way of students fully participating this fall as we help students, families, and educators adjust to blended learning,” Styer said.  

The department pointed to the steps it took to keep students engaged during remote learning, including ordering 350,000 internet-enabled devices, prioritizing students in temporary housing, and coordinating wellness checks for students who were not interacting often with teachers. 

An initial look at the city data also showed that average daily engagement was 70% or less for homeless students at about 300 schools, said Randi Levine, policy director at Advocates for Children, which has pushed for more support for students in shelters, many of whom are still struggling to log on due to spotty internet connections. (A department spokesperson said the city is working to address connectivity issues.)

“The data highlight the need for the city to work across agencies to ensure students who are homeless have the technology, space, and support needed to engage in remote learning this year,” Levine wrote in an email.   

The City Council analyzed data that Councilman Mark Treyger, chair of the council’s education committee, had sought since May and which was released this month after the council issued a subpoena for it. Treyger said he still wants to know how many children never logged on last semester, saying that’s necessary for locating “additional support for kids who need it the most.”

Treyger is sponsoring two bills that would require the department to issue more information about remote learning. One of the bills would require the education department to report demographic information about which students are participating in hybrid and remote learning, how many students are receiving some live instruction, and how many students with special needs are receiving their mandated services. 

So far, the city has released weekly reports about the percentage of students in each district that are enrolled in hybrid learning, as well as the citywide racial breakdown of those students. 

The other bill, which Treyger is sponsoring with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, would require the education department to release weekly student attendance reports during remote learning with grade-, school-, and district-level data, as well as information about race and what portion of those students have disabilities or are learning English as a new language. 

Both bills will be presented Friday at a City Council oversight hearing on remote learning. Chancellor Richard Carranza is scheduled to testify. 

The education department reopened all of its school buildings on Oct. 1, but has yet to release attendance figures. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Carranza have blamed the delay on the complications of collecting attendance for both hybrid and in-person learning.

A department spokesperson said schools are implementing “new school structures” to take attendance, and will begin reporting regular attendance information sometime this month.

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