Why Don’t We Know how many kids are attending virtual learning?

By Sara Ganim

January 26, 2021

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Runtime: 00:12:50

Below is a transcript of the EXTRA episode Why Don’t We Know how many kids are attending virtual learning? We encourage you to listen to the episode. It was written to be heard, not to be read. 

Global News: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Happy New Year!

Sara Ganim Narration: The year 2020 is finally behind us. Good riddance to a year filled with doom and gloom.

ABC News: More than 5,000 deaths now reported from Covid-19 across the country

Sara Ganim Narration: and while there are many things we will remember about this awful time.

The Damage Report: no justice, no peace, no justice, no peace

Sara Ganim Narration: Undoubtedly, one major lesson was learned about our classrooms. 

NBC News:  For millions of kids and teens, the return to school will be virtual 

Sara Ganim Narration: Parents, teachers and students across the country had to adapt to virtual learning.

NBC News: its potentially dangerous for our kids to go to school, It’s also an impossible situation for a working parent

Sara Ganim Narration: it is the single biggest disruption to education in our lifetime and it will have an enormous lasting impact. 

CNN: Chicago’s public schools have had the larges drop in enrollment this fall by 15 thousand students

Sara Ganim Narration: and this may not come as a surprise but the Federal Department of Education was woefully unprepared in many different ways but one of the most basic failures is a failure of data. 

There is no federal tracking program for virtual learning, meaning, no way of knowing what students fell behind or couldn’t attend school during this time.

Anecdotally, we could guess that the biggest impact was on the most vulnerable — low-income families that could not afford to deal with the new demands on their internet and parental supervision that accompanies virtual learning.

Worse. Families that lost their homes, lost caregivers, family members and the impact that had on attendance.

But at the federal level, that is anecdotal because there is no way of looking at the country and seeing the biggest gaps. If we could do that, maybe we could start to provide resources to address the problem. 

Paige Kowalski: Yeah, We Won’t know very much at the end of all this which is really sad because it’s been a very hard year for everyone.

Sara Ganim Narration: That’s Paige Kowalski. She’s the executive Vice President of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit working to improve the quality and accessibility of data in education.

Paige Kowalski: And so to not be able to glean any insights about without which decisions worked, which ones didn’t and this is going to happen again to all of us. It just will, it may not be a pandemic, but we’ve got hurricanes and wildfires and floods and blizzards and we need to have a better understanding of which kids are impacted and how much and which kinds of learning models are working so that we’re better prepared for next time. Otherwise, this was all for naught.

Sara Ganim Narration: I originally called Paige to talk about data issues that we highlighted in a few of our other episodes. But before our interview I noticed a story about how districts are dealing with virtual truancy during covid  and it mentioned that there is no federal tracking program. This kind of blew me away. So, I wanted to ask Paige about it.  

Sara Ganim: And it’s true that there’s absolutely no way of looking at nationwide data about virtual learning and I guess, virtual attendance.

Paige Kowalski: Correct.

Sara Ganim: So it’s what? It’s up to the individual states or individual districts?

Paige Kowalski: No, states always are in charge of their data collection and defining attendance and all of their own data definitions. But when this happened, districts were kind of on their own attendance. Attendance looks different if a student is in a classroom than if they’re online. And some days you’re online, with a teacher in front of you and some days it’s asynchronous and you’re not. So what does attendance then? And it’s different district by district because you had different reopening plans because they were district by district those weren’t statewide decisions.

So the data is messy and some are doing gradings, some aren’t, some are in-person, some have interim assessments and some don’t. And I don’t know where we’ll be next summer and how much we’ll be able to say that we know what happened this past year. We’ll know it anecdotally, we’ll be able to say, look at what this happened in this one district with attendance and with students with special needs or with their assessments, but you wouldn’t necessarily be able to compare that to the district 150 miles away within the same state.

Sara Ganim: Wow, that’s incredible. I mean we kind of talked about this earlier in the season. We did an extra episode on the confusion around HIPAA in the pandemic. And how Americans like to think this is the greatest country in the world. And the reality is when it comes to pandemic data, it was also all over the place and county to county sometimes within a county city to city, what you could find out was different and how that really hindered research in the beginning, and also just like allocation of medical supplies and data has an impact in all sorts of different ways. And it seems like that fits in with this conversation, too. It seems like a similar scenario.

Paige Kowalski: Absolutely. I mean and that’s why we collect data at these higher levels is so that particularly, local control is great, letting everybody address their needs in their own community. But when a crisis happens, capacity is very thin and people on the ground are trying to get everybody fed and housed and get them to school. They can’t also be focused on these bigger picture issues, and you’re going to need your state governments to step in, but they can’t do it flying blind without information.

I mean if the state knew instantaneous, real time, where do we need devices in my state? Where is broadband weak? Where are students not engaged? Starting to understand what is the learning loss and where and what can we do at the state level to start mitigating some of that? We could create a tutoring program, but where do the tutors go? Where do I need to recruit them from at the state level? So, yeah, it’s the same thing getting that information having it collected, in a similar manner with similar definitions so that it’s calculated in the same way. So, you’re comparing apples to apples across counties is really important. 

Sara Ganim Narration: Let’s take a step back. “Why Don’t We Know” reporter Gabriella Paul took a look at what exactly is tracked at the federal level and what we can expect if any of these issues persist next school year.

Gabriella Paul Narration: So, first off, it’s important to understand the broader context of attendance tracking. It revolves around money, state and federal funding for public schools. 

In large part, states distribute funds to their schools on a head-count basis. So, more heads equals more money. Then there’s federal funding. 

In 2015, Congress passed the “‘Every Student Succeeds Act,” championed in part by then California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Of course, she’s now Vice President. And this initiative gave states more leeway on how to define and track their schools’ performance impacting their federal funding. 

Historically, tracking included things like graduation rates and standardized testing. In 2015, this initiative required states to also begin tracking one non-academic measure of performance. Thirty-four states and the district of columbia opted to track chronic absenteeism — or when kids are absent for 10% or more school days out of the year.

Overall, it’s safe to say that normally school districts everywhere are incentivized to keep high attendance rates and keep good track of it.  

Sara Ganim Narration: but that’s in normal times. 

Gabriella Paul Narration: Yes,now enter Coronavirus. In March, the Department of Education waived all tracking requirements for the 2019-2020 school year.  

Sara Ganim Narration:What do you mean waived?

Gabriella Paul Narration: Well, according to the press release, former Education Secretary Betsy Devos said that states could apply for waivers that would basically exempt state’s reporting of all types of data for the current school year due to the Coronavirus. Among the waived data is attendance tracking. In short, there is no uniform tracking of attendance happening at a national level for this school year. 

Sara Ganim Narration: So, what happens down the road if public officials or parents or even the department want to look back at how K-12 students fared during this time? The lasting effects of Coronavirus on K-12 students? 

Gabriella Paul Narration: Well, we hope it doesn’t result in a data desert. A situation where we look back and have zero sense of how education was disrupted. To get a sense of this, I requested the records from the department for every state that had submitted a waiver. I found that all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Bureau of Indian education submitted one. 

Sara Ganim Narration: Essentially everyone has decided to skip data collection this year. probably, the most influential year in the lives of school-aged children and there’s no data. 

Gabriella Paul Narration: Correct.

Sara Ganim Narration: I attempted to reach incoming Education Secretary Miguel Cardona through President Biden’s transition team, though without success.

As of now, it’s not clear if waivers for data collection will be extended into the coming school year or if Cardona has plans to remedy the lack of uniform attendance tracking currently happening. 

It will be interesting, however, to see if the department takes any cues from Vice President Kamala Harris. She made increasing attendance rates a cornerstone of her public service while in California. 

The only thing that’s clear right now is that tracking will be momentarily and exclusively left up to State Departments of Education and local school districts.

Sara Ganim Narration: and what does that look like?

Gabriella Paul Narration: Well, it’s hard to get a sense here. From what I can tell, state and district policies are wildly different across the country.

Sara Ganim Narration: Can you give us some examples?

Gabriella Paul Narration: Sure, there’s actually one organization called the regional education library that’s compiled a bunch of these attendance policies.

Take New York, for example, where you’ve got the NYC Department of Education. Their policy says that attendance cannot be calculated into final grades for this school year. But in terms of roll call they are counting “meaningful daily interactions,” like emails or online discussions for attendance. 

Then at the opposite side of the spectrum, you’ve got D.C., where they have a blanket policy that says all students in the district are considered “present” as long as remote learning continues. 

Sara Ganim Narration: In other words, in addition to a lack of uniform tracking at the national level, the states or school districts are adopting such wildly different attendance policies on their own that it would be impossible to make a meaningful comparison even if we tried? 

Gabriella Paul Narration: precisely. 

Sara Ganim Narration: Research shows that students who miss 10 percent or more of schools days — that’s about 18 days in most districts — are at greater risk for performance issues and by 6th grade, it’s the biggest indicator for dropping out and so if researchers can’t look back at 2020 and see where the gaps are. 

Sara Ganim: What’s the long-term impact of that on students? What does that mean for their futures?

Paige Kowalski:  It just means that any mitigation we might do is going to be too slow. It may not be there. You only go through 3rd grade one time and you need to be able to be a really strong reader by end of 3rd grade. And if you’re not,  If it takes you years to come up with a strategy to mitigate well that student now is in 6th grade. You’re no longer mitigating it in the 4th grade, but you’ve only just figured out how so it is very urgent and there is no time to waste.

Sara Ganim Narration: This is Why Don’t We Know.

This extra was produced by me, Sara Ganim, with reporting from Gabriella Paul.

The associate producer is Tori Whidden.

This episode was edited by Amy Fu.

Music for this episode was composed by Daniel Townsend.

Audio mixing was done by James Sullivan.

The executive producer is Frank LoMonte.

‘why Don’t We Know’ is a production of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

A special thanks to the Hearst Family Foundation for proving the grant money that supported this reporting.

For more information, please visit our website at www.whydontweknow.org