Ice cream, pizza, raffled Nike shoes. Phone calls, home visits, virtual parent meetings. Rhia Biagas, a social worker at ARISE Academy in New Orleans, goes to great lengths to ensure her 432 students are showing up for class. But despite her efforts, ARISE had one of the highest rates of chronically absent students in the city as of last month.
But ARISE is not alone. Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, about 9,000 New Orleans public school students — or about 20 percent of pre-pandemic NOLA Public Schools district enrollment — are considered “chronically absent” this school year, according to district officials. That means they have missed 10 or more days of school.
A late November NOLA Public Schools district spreadsheet obtained by The Lens showed that number could be as high as 27 percent, but the district hasn’t historically collected charter school attendance data and a final enrollment count, taken Oct. 1, is still in the process of being certified by the state. District officials did not answer specific questions about the 27 percent figure.
It’s a number that could rise in the coming weeks now that NOLA Public Schools has shifted back to virtual learning amid a rise in COVID-19 cases in New Orleans. Recently, district Chief Accountability Officer Kevin George said student attendance is better when students are physically in school.
Even before the districtwide move to virtual this month, about 40 percent of NOLA Public Schools students had elected to attend only virtual classes during the pandemic.
“COVID is real and I know a lot of people may not have been impacted, but I have some students doing work from the hospital or caring for a parent who is in quarantine and they have to make food and put it by the door,” Biagas said.
“I feel like the social worker is like the mom of the school. I manage attendance here. I also do counseling — from students with IEPs to students dealing with grief. I do also lead the mental health team at ARISE,” she added, while explaining her laundry list of responsibilities.
In such a hectic year, she’s been overwhelmed, she said.
“I realized that was way too much work for me to do by myself. We put together an attendance team of five people. We were able to put together a truancy team and are able to go out as a team,” she said.
The team reaches out to absent students, visits students at home and sets up parent meetings.
Those are exactly the steps that the NOLA Public Schools district recommends for chronically absent students. District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the district’s distance-learning attendance advice includes canvassing efforts.
“Schools send a warning letter to parents/guardians explaining the need for children to attend school. From there, schools ramp up their outreach to parents/guardians to include a meeting with the family. If the issue is ongoing, schools create an attendance plan to address the reasons for the student’s chronic absence,” Alfonzo explained. “After 15 or more absences, the case is referred to the Office of Student Support and Attendance (OSSA), where the attendance team can provide another layer of supportive services.”
Nearly 9,000 students were deemed chronically absent as of this month, Chief Accountability Officer Kevin George told Orleans Parish School Board members at a training session last week. As of late November, that number was about 8,100 according to district data, and in mid-October it was 6,500.
George also said the district’s average daily attendance rate is just shy of 83 percent this year. 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.
Lawrence Crocker College Prep had the highest rate of chronically absent students at the beginning of December, at 76 percent. At ARISE, where Biagas works, it was 56 percent. ARISE’s weekly attendance rate was 77 percent as of last month, below the city’s average this year.
Meanwhile selective-admission schools Lake Forest Elementary Charter School and Lusher Charter School both reported average attendance of 97 percent and had 10 or fewer students considered chronically absent, according to district data provided last month.
At last week’s board training session, newly elected board member J.C. Romero, who previously worked in school administration, asked how attendance collection was proceeding as charter schools have been asked to submit attendance data every two weeks.
“I’m wondering if you’ve had any conversations about a centralized attendance system,” Romero said.
George said the district is looking into software that could track attendance, both to make collection easier for the district and take the onus of additional reporting off of charter operators. As a decentralized charter system, the district does not have access to schools’ internal student information system software, which are often used to track attendance.
Member Olin Parker asked how in-person attendance and virtual attendance differed.
“Yes, attendance is better for students attending in-person,” George said.
District targeting middle school grades
With absenteeism varying across the city, The Lens asked district officials how it was addressing the problem.
In addition to a central Office of Student Support and Attendance — which charter schools can utilize for support and help connecting with the New Orleans Police Department — the district has decided to focus on seventh and eighth grade students to ensure they make it to high school.
“The District is targeting specific grades. Prior to COVID-19, The Bridge served as a partner with NOLA Public Schools to help support 7th and 8th graders who were expelled or at risk of expulsion during the 2019-2020 school year. Its services focused on the academic and behavioral challenges faced by these students during critical years of their development: the transition from middle schools to high school,” Alfonzo explained in a December statement.
The program is still working with middle school students.
The way last school year ended, with students attending classes online from their homes was tough on kids, Biagas said. She thinks this is especially true for middle school students.
“With virtual school, I always go to the homes, so I get to see the backstory a lot of the time. Virtual school really shows everything. I saw middle schoolers caring for their baby sisters,” she said.
Biagas said it is difficult to strike the balance between reinforcing virtual school is real and vital for students while also cutting kids slack for small things like uniform requirements or students who don’t turn their cameras on during a lesson.
The New Orleans Police Department is not currently doing truancy enforcement, officials said.
“NOPD has suspended all truancy enforcement amid the COVID-19 pandemic, due to many schools utilizing distance learning and widely varied school schedules,” police department spokesman Aaron Looney explained in an email.
“The NOPD does work with NOLA Public Schools in an effort to reach out to chronically absent students. However, we do not track numbers on chronic absenteeism. The designation does differ from the department’s truancy enforcement, which is not currently active,” Looney wrote.
Alfonzo said the district will work with NOPD to perform family visits and check on chronically absent students.
“The goal is to identify any barriers that may be preventing children from attending school and link them to services that can help them re-engage their education,” she wrote.
Biagas said truancy officers can be a big help.
“I do phone calls, letters and follow-up with home visits. I try to do at least two home visits before I do a truancy referral,” Biagas said. “There will be times when I go to the house and get no answer. But there will be times when a truancy officer goes and they’ll get a good response and then a whole family is back in school.”
Biagas said she will keep working to get kids both back in the K-8 school building or online, whichever learning style they’ve chosen. ARISE’s CEO said 62 percent of students were slated to be learning in-person this quarter, up from 53 percent last quarter, which will likely help keep students engaged.
“Our goal is not to get our numbers up just for numbers. It’s really for kids to get the learning and education that they need so they can have all the tools necessary that they need,” Biagas said. “We’re still deeply desiring and wanting all of our students to have equal access to learning and everything they need and get them in the door.”
“We’re going to keep trying all year and hopefully next year looks different.”