Morris Jeff Community School began the 2020-2021 school year online with the rest of Orleans Parish public schools amid the pandemic.

Daily attendance rates across New Orleans public schools varied widely as the school year started remotely amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to early data, and NOLA Public Schools district officials are working to address the challenges of virtual attendance as an important funding deadline approaches this week. 

The Lens examined attendance reports from 12 schools, from mid-August through the first week of September, and found daily attendance rates during virtual learning as low as 50 and 60 percent at some schools while other schools maintained 99 percent attendance through an entire week.

On Monday, district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said average daily attendance district wide was 81 percent. 

During the 2018-19 school year, attendance across the state averaged 93.7 percent. Orleans Parish was a few points behind at 91.8 percent, according to state data.

“Across the country, student attendance in distance learning settings is posing challenges for student attendance,” Alfonzo wrote in a Monday email. “NOLA-PS is aware of this challenge and working proactively with our schools citywide to understand how students are engaging and developing strategies to increase daily attendance. At the school level, staff teams are devoted to following up daily with students to ensure they attend classes and to help ensure students have the tools they need if connectivity is a challenge in particular.”

Low attendance could soon become a financial concern for schools. School funding in Louisiana is largely based on enrollment, with a certain amount of state and federal funding dedicated for each student. Enrollment counts are taken twice during the school year and the first one is approaching this week — Oct. 1. Attendance can include students in virtual learning, the Louisiana Department of Education confirmed earlier this month.

Over the last two weeks, some students began returning to city school classrooms, which could help boost attendance if technological issues or other challenges were keeping students from virtual classes at home. District officials have said roughly 60 percent of pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students are back in the class while other young students chose to remain at home. Older students have not yet been allowed to return to school buildings, though that could change in mid-October if the city continues to show low test positivity, hospitalizations and daily case counts.  

The district began tracking attendance in city schools to gauge whether it needed to take any system-wide action to boost the number of students in classes. The data collection has run into a series of delays, as hurricanes delayed the return to students to class, but Alfonzo said early data shows the return to in-person learning is helping. Additionally, she said, the district has hired a contractor to help reach frequently absent middle school students.

District officials have been very vocal when it comes to encouraging attendance. On top of the obvious academic benefits, schools also must meet a state-required instructional minute requirement this fall, unlike when it was waived in the spring. 

“Every day of learning- online or in person- counts and we need to make sure our children are actively participating in school,” NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. wrote in a Friday afternoon letter. 

Low attendance at Coghill

At Mary D. Coghill Elementary School — the only direct-run district school in what is otherwise an all-charter district — virtual attendance rates ranged from 68 percent to 74 percent during the week of August 31. That has improved dramatically since the return to in-person learning for the elementary school’s youngest students, Alfonzo reported.

“With the return to in-person learning, the school has seen an increase in daily attendance among those students,” she wrote. “In-person learning, as of last Thursday, was 100%, with distance learning having no significant shifts in attendance rates.”

When the district initially had trouble distributing laptops to all Coghill students on time due to manufacturing delays, attendance was taken via a phone call to the students home. Later, after computers were passed out, attendance was taken online.

“Since the beginning of the school year the school-based staff have been focused on carrying out daily outreach via phone calls and other efforts along with conducting home visits to ensure students can become engaged and connected to school work in order to improve daily attendance,” Alfonzo wrote, noting the school has recently increased its social media presence in an effort to reach more families. 

Other schools have struggled with low attendance too. At Martin Behrman Elementary School, attendance ranged between 46 and 57 percent during the second week of school, in mid-August. Algiers Charter Schools, the charter group overseeing Behrman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Attendance at Bricolage Academy was steady between 88 and 93 percent over two weeks, while Lake Forest Elementary Charter School and Mary Bethune Elementary School boasted between 97 and 99 percent daily attendance rates during virtual learning. 

Lake Forest CEO Mardele Early credits the high attendance to training teachers in online learning over the summer, sticking to a routine and strong communication with families, including technology workshops and town hall meetings.

“There has been an intentional commitment to family partnerships, high expectations, and communication” she wrote in an email Monday morning. “We have attempted to be reflective and make the necessary adjustments along the way. These aspects of our school culture, along with a wealth of parental support and assistance, are contributing factors to the high level of daily student engagement and increased student attendance.”

She said “dedicated age-appropriate ‘brain breaks’” also help.

“Students follow their regular school schedule while receiving real-time direct instruction from teachers in all subjects, including electives,” she wrote in an email. “Student engagement has remained at the center of our daily virtual instructional delivery.”

School attendance generally reflects a point-in-time measurement. At Lake Forest, Early said attendance data reported to the district is pulled from homeroom at 8 a.m. But the school also tracks students in “every period for internal purposes to monitor attendance throughout the day and immediately address any patterns of tardiness or absenteeism.”

“Students and parents know attendance is monitored throughout the day and this ensures that students are present all day,” Early said. “Students and parents know in order to get credit, they have to be in attendance all day.”

District-wide efforts to increase attendance

The district also has some resources for its charter schools, Alfonzo explained.

“The district has provided guidance to schools citywide on how to follow-up with students with excessive absences and our Office of Student Support and Attendance is available for schools to leverage for students that are of most concern regarding attendance,” Alfonzo wrote.

The district is also working with The Bridge, a program for middle school students, “to carry targeted outreach to middle school students identified by schools as disengaged at this time.”

“We are continuing to gather data from schools and working to identify additional best practices, locally and nationally, given the challenge that distance learning poses to consistent attendance among students,” she wrote. 

In a Friday afternoon email newsletter, Lewis encouraged families to seek help with school attendance if needed.

“If you, your family or a family you know is feeling disconnected from school, please call 504-527-KIDS and our team will help get that student re-engaged with their school.”

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...