The pandemic changed everything for kids across the country. In suburban North Chicago, those effects were immediate and traumatic.
“They knew people who had died, multiple family members who’d been hospitalized,” said John Price, superintendent of North Chicago School District 187.
The K-12 school district is about 82% low income. Price said the administration had to work hard to set every student up with computers, internet and headphones. But that didn’t solve the deeper problems.
“Families and students that are living in poverty are already struggling with a lot of extra pressure and challenges,” he said.
Price said engagement has improved since the early days of the pandemic, and the district is now offering hybrid learning. But he said in the first quarter this year, some schools saw attendance drop more than 10 percentage points. District-wide, attendance dropped about 4 points compared to before the pandemic.
WBEZ surveyed 50 school districts across the collar counties. Of the 25 that responded, districts that serve a large population of low-income students were more likely than wealthier districts to see a drop in attendance in the first quarter compared to the previous year. At this point, most of them were remote.
School attendance for years has been a major indicator of whether students are staying on track. And the drop in attendance during the pandemic has been a red flag.
“We know that when students miss between 10 and 15 days, or people who are chronically absent, that’s an early indicator they need a pretty significant intervention,” said Ann Whalen, who leads the policy team at Advance Illinois, an education advocacy nonprofit.
Missed learning during the pandemic could translate into an even wider achievement gap. Elementary students on average are likely to lose five to nine months of learning in math by the end of the year, according to a report from consulting group McKinsey and Company. Even worse, students of color could be behind six to 12 months.
Adjusting attendance during the pandemic
For many school districts, the pandemic has complicated how educators view attendance. This has led to changes in attendance policies to try to respond to individual student needs and to avoid punishing students’ for circumstances outside their control.
That’s what’s happened in South suburban Steger. It saw a slight increase in attendance during the first quarter, and that may be thanks to a more lenient attendance policy. About 76% of students in the Steger elementary school district are considered low income.
Anthony Carter is a middle school teacher there. He’s gotten a glimpse into his students’ home lives during remote learning. As a result, he has tried to be more accommodating to kids who can’t always show up.
“You might have a kid … [who] may be so-called mom and dad at home right now, having to look out for their siblings because mom or dad is out working,” Carter said.
Fellow Steger teacher Corinne Vos says teachers are trying to be flexible about when students are allowed to watch their lessons.
“We would be recording ourselves so that students can watch a video of us conducting the lesson later on at night when it was a better time for them to get their optimal learning in,” Vos said.
Parent Yolanda Porter said she appreciated that understanding. She is a special education teacher with another district. During the first semester of this school year, she juggled remote teaching and her fifth grade son’s own virtual learning in Steger. Around Thanksgiving, she was hit hard with double pneumonia and ended up in the hospital for a week. Her doctor believes her illness was COVID-19 related.
“I’m used to just getting up and going, doing everything myself,” Porter said. “[I’m not used to] having to depend on others to do it because I just couldn’t physically get my body to work.”
Porter considers herself fortunate that her older daughters were around to help with her fifth grader. She appreciated when school administrators reached out.
“They were like if he can’t log in, or he has to log in late, just get him to do as much work as he can,” she said. “[The administrators said], ‘Try to feel better. What do you need? What do you need for us to do?’”
Porter said that flexibility has continued, even as her son has returned to hybrid school.
Completing unfinished learning
There is a lot of talk in education circles about how to help students make up for material they may have missed during the pandemic because of the limitations of remote or hybrid learning.
Those losses are exacerbated, of course, when students have racked up absences.
Billions of federal dollars are coming to Illinois schools as part of the recently passed third coronavirus stimulus package, which requires school districts to use at least 20% of the money to address gaps in learning. That could include things like extended school days, summer school or tutoring.
The Illinois State Board of Education is also setting aside funds for a number of initiatives, including high-impact tutoring. That’s where a tutor covers specific lessons with a student for several months.
“A critical piece in this high-impact tutoring is looking at for example, can we create a consortium of educator preparation programs that we can create a core of tutors,” said State Superintendent Dr. Carmen Ayala at a recent Illinois State Board of Education meeting.
Ayala said the state is planning to offer funds for training to help teachers identify gaps in learning through an equity lens. The state is also looking at assessment tests to give to students next school year to see if students have covered what’s expected under the state’s learning standards.
“We can really use that assessment to gauge loss, gauge learning, gauge gains,” she said.
Attendance data from this year should be part of the conversation about making up for unfinished learning, said Ann Whalen with Advance Illinois. But it’s also critical to think about how engaged students have been as well, she said.
For example, kids may have been marked present during remote learning, but teachers have sometimes caught students watching YouTube.
“We need to make sure we’re looking at multiple measures about enrollment, attendance and engagement to better understand what’s happening at that local level to ensure that our resources and support are responding to students in this moment,” she said.
Whalen thinks what’s happening this school year could have a lasting impact on students’ academic progress. She says what comes next should be dramatic interventions to reverse the potential damage.
Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.