The entrance of Firstline Live Oak Elementary.

This week, the NOLA Public Schools district is asking its schools to track virtual learning attendance so the district can establish a baseline rate and determine whether it needs to intervene to ensure more students are taking online classes. 

Unlike many other districts in the state that opened their school buildings to students last month, NOLA Public Schools has delayed in-person classes until mid- to late September, when it will begin a phased reopening. 

In the meantime, school is still in session, but it’s limited to screens and take-home packets. Many schools started two weeks ago or more, but the attempt to capture attendance has twice been delayed, most recently by last week’s two-day school closure due to storms in the Gulf of Mexico. The district will periodically survey schools throughout September and perhaps longer if a significant number of students continue virtual learning. (Even after the brick-and-mortar reopening begins, students will still have the option to continue taking classes from home.)

“It is important in our role to be able to understand to what extent students have initiated their school year and are engaging through the distance learning on a daily basis across our schools,” NOLA Public Schools spokeswoman Dominique Ellis wrote in an email. 

“This helps in our role in monitoring the general delivery of education during such unique times and also allows us to assess what, if any, system-wide actions should be taken to improve attendance,” she wrote. 

Attendance is also a financial concern for schools. State per-pupil funding is based in part on student counts conducted in October and February. Students must be enrolled and actively attending school to be counted. According to Louisiana Department of Education spokesman Ted Beasley, students attending virtually will be counted.

Though all schools initially returned with virtual classrooms in August, the city’s youngest students will soon return to school for in-person lessons, schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced last week. Pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade students will go back to class starting in mid-September through the end of the month. Lewis said if COVID-19 cases remain low in the city, older students could return by mid-October. 

The district, charter schools and donors have made great efforts to provide laptops and internet hotspots for students across the city in an attempt to close the ‘digital divide.’ Lewis has reiterated throughout August that attendance is mandatory and that schools are required by state law to provide a minimum number of instructional minutes for students. 

“Those guidelines from the state board of education are still in full effect which means students have to be present,” Lewis said in mid-August. “If we have students who may be disconnected we have protocols we’re putting in place to make sure we can connect. We have to be honest, virtual learning is very very different from having a kid get on a bus and sit in a classroom from 8 to 3.”

State law requires schools in Louisiana to provide 63,720 instructional minutes each school year. Last spring, after weeks of disruption due to the pandemic and to the relief of many educators and families, Gov. John Bel Edwards waived the state’s minimum requirement for instructional minutes. But that is not the case this fall.

At-home instruction varies

District spokeswoman Laura Aviles said schools can meet the requirement in a variety of ways. 

“The LDOE has stated that instructional minutes can be met through synchronous, asynchronous instruction, independent work-time and low tech options,” she wrote in an email.

Additionally, all schools are supposed to develop a system to track attendance daily and be ready to communicate that data, she said. 

Synchronous learning often takes the form of a live video conference led by a teacher with students present. While asynchronous learning may be a recorded video lesson that students can watch on their own schedule. Schools are using a mix of the two to meet requirements. “Low tech” options often take the form of printed work packets.

At Plessy Community School, CEO Meghan Raychadhuri said the leaders are trying to be flexible as families return. 

“Starting the school year virtually has posed new challenges from the ones we faced at the end of last school year. Currently, more families are back at work and are struggling to balance supporting their students virtual learning and their own jobs. Plessy has approached distance learning with that in mind,” she wrote in an email. 

“We offer students the option to engage in live classes or to participate later in the day when recordings of those classes are uploaded,” she wrote. “This allows families flexibility around student learning and allows us to capture attendance and ensure compliance with seat time minutes in a way that we hope supports families.”

At Mary D. Coghill Elementary School, the only school run directly by the district, teachers initially tracked attendance by contacting parents, district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis told The Lens. The school was unable to provide all students with laptops at the beginning of the year “due high demand and the distributer delivery timelines,” Ellis wrote. That week, students worked through paper packets. 

The final set of computers are set to be delivered to families this week, Ellis said. Now Coghill will record attendance in Powerschool, a software that can track attendance and assignments, calculate grades and a variety of other school-related items. 

“Elementary teachers will check attendance in the morning and middle school teachers will check their attendance at each class period,” Ellis explained.

Raychadhuri said any families who still have technology needs should contact their school. 

“We want to make sure that families across the city know that virtual school is open city wide and schools are ready to support families through this process. If you need access to technology or internet please reach out to your school,” she wrote. “Virtual school is important for student learning and success.”

Update: This story was updated with additional information from the Louisiana Department of Education.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...