Booker T. Washington High School. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools district is suspending its biweekly collection of attendance data from charter schools — introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic — at the end of this month as average attendance rates improve in the city, district officials confirmed Tuesday. 

But attendance continues to be a concern for educators. Even with overall improvements in daily attendance rates, frequent absenteeism among some students appears to have gotten worse. Earlier this year, district officials said that about 9,000 students were considered chronically absent, meaning they had missed 10 or more days of school. The district did not provide an updated number of “chronically absent” students.

But as of mid-March, a subset of that group, “habitually absent” students, was at 15,506, Alfonzo said in an email. A student is considered “habitually absent” if they have missed at least 10 days of school due to unexcused absences. 

 All absences raise concern, district officials say, not only because students can fall behind academically, but also because many rely on schools for breakfast and lunch. 

The district started tracking attendance in September amid concerns of lower than average virtual attendance rates early in the school year, when New Orleans schools had not yet opened for in-person classes. The district — which is made up almost entirely of semi-autonomous charter schools — had not previously tracked attendance data at individual schools. 

Students took remote classes for the final quarter of the 2019-2020 school year, after Gov. John Bel Edwards closed school campuses in March to curb the spread of the virus as the pandemic ramped up in the U.S.

In the fall, students in New Orleans began the 2020-2021 year in virtual school. But as COVID-19 cases and test positivity rates dropped in the city, elementary school students were welcomed back to campuses full time in late September. Older students came back in a hybrid model in October. Attendance varied widely in that time — from 50 to 60 percent daily average attendance at some schools to upwards of 99 percent at others.

NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., along with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and other officials, issued a public call last month for community help to ensure students are attending school. At that time, citywide attendance hovered around 84 percent, well below the state average of 93.7 percent and district average of 91.8 percent during the 2018-19 school year.

Now, as attendance continues to inch up, district officials say they feel confident focusing on closing out this year and planning for next. During the week ending March 12, district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said, daily attendance has risen to 86 percent on average.

“Due to your school routine tracking of attendance, habitually absent students, and referring students to the Office of Student Support and Attendance, more of our city’s youth are attending school through our coordinated efforts,” Lewis wrote in a letter to school leaders last week.

During that week, the three city schools with the highest average daily attendance topped 97 percent. They were Hynes’ UNO campus, Lake Forest Elementary Charter School and John F. Kennedy High School. 

However some schools still struggle to get kids to class. That week, three high schools had the lowest daily average attendance rates. The NET and NET 2, alternative high schools, had average attendance rates of 62 percent and 53 percent respectively. At Rosenwald Collegiate Academy, daily average attendance was 62 percent. 

Elizabeth Ostberg, the CEO of Educators for Quality Alternatives which runs The NET schools, said the charter group has a wide range of interventions to try to get and keep students in school. 

“Consistently attending school is not always a given for our students so it is something our schools are constantly working on,” she said. 

Ostberg said The NET offers morning and afternoon schedules, a personal advisor for each student, home visits, door-to-door transportation, free childcare and an onsite food pantry. The schools also have what she described as “plug back in” meetings with a students’ family to help develop an individualized plan to get back on track in school. 

“Since the purpose of our schools is to serve students who have dropped out of, or been expelled from, or who have struggled with school, the majority of our students struggle with attendance and have a history of truancy.  So generally, even in ‘normal’ years, our attendance is lower than that of other schools,” she wrote. “Obviously this year has been especially challenging for our students– large percentage of whom are parenting, working, caring for siblings, struggling with mental health issues, homelessness etc.– so it has been even tougher than usual for many of them to prioritize school consistently.”

Chris Hines, chief operations officer at the charter-school network Crescent City Schools, said attendance has improved since students started returning to campus. CCS operates three elementary charter schools. 

“In general we’ve found that attendance has improved since we’ve brought more students back in person, but it’s still not as high as it was pre-pandemic,” Hines wrote in a text message.

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...