COVID-19 and the impromptu e-Learning movement that it caused was the biggest education story of last year. Within that story, there were two minor subplots: the digital divide and e-Learning absenteeism. People were quick to blame the latter on the former which is only natural. The digital divide has long established the gap in technology and the internet between rural/urban students and their suburban counterparts. So, it stands to reason that if the schools switch to a model that requires technology and the internet, some of those children will be left behind. There has certainly been a fair amount of that. All around the country many students have not even logged on since the start of e-Learning. Much of that can be attributed to the aforementioned gaps, but a lot of it is just good ole’ fashioned truancy, and we need to call it out.
There are real obstacles to online learning that should not be trivialized. Some students don’t have tech. Some don’t have internet. Some do not have the workspace. Some do not have supervision. One cannot possibly dig into the individual cases of the millions of kids to determine what it is for each student. With that being said, I have seen enough now to realize that some of these kids just aren’t doing what they are supposed to do.
The charter school I work at has more flexibility than most district schools. We were able to give every student a Chromebook, and a wireless hotspot. We also had the option for in-person learning, We established a hotline and an email address for tech issues. Many of us have made house calls. We took away the majority of obstacles students had as a barrier to learning. For that, we do have much higher attendance than a lot of schools. However, we still have a subset of students who are not logging in and doing their work. Through the online platform we use we can actually tell that many of them are using the Chromebook and internet fine … just for things other than school. For those students, there is no special explanation. They are simply missing school.
Some of this can be attributed to attitudes about e-Learning.
Through all of the messaging about different learning options, a surprising number of people have fallen under the impression that e-Learning was optional. A lot of students and parents saw remote learning as some kind of extension activity in the beginning. Schoolwork at home typically has been. However, in this environment, if you are not going to school, then remote learning is expected, and a lot of districts have not messaged that properly and that is exacerbated by a lack of follow-up with absent students.
Some parents have confessed they don’t see the need in making children log on at a specific time as the work is posted online. This is true to a degree. E-Learning does offer more flexibility when it comes to completing work, and students should take advantage of that. The problem is that we teach the work via zoom. Kids who log-in at odd hours might not know how to do the work. Additionally, it takes dedicated, disciplined, and mature students to teach themselves, and get all their work done on a different schedule with no oversight. Many students will not fit that description.
Schools have some responsibility for this as well. The teeth of truancy officers aren’t going to be as sharp when a quarter of the district technically qualifies, but too many schools have accepted kids not logging on as an inevitable part of the COVID-19 experience. It is not. Schools shouldn’t just accept students being chronically absent under the guise of “assuming the best” or “not penalizing” families for things out of their control. As mentioned earlier, there are items that families can’t control and that shouldn’t be taken lightly, but if you are offering everything that they need and they are still not showing up, then someone needs to get on the phone with them and figure out what is going on … every day, if that is what it takes.
During the coronavirus pandemic, we have accepted situations that we would not ordinarily accept. Some of those situations we, unfortunately, don’t have a choice about. Student attendance does not fall into that category. Parents, students, and schools need to make every effort to get children to school virtually or in-person. Teachers can’t be expected to do their job if students are not present.