Some districts were better positioned than others to quickly intervene when students stopped showing up during the pandemic. Long Beach, Calif., a district of 81,000 students, won a grant last year to help students at risk of becoming chronically absent and had been honing interventions before the pandemic set in. Erin Simon, an assistant superintendent, said that instead of warning letters for missing too much school this year, students would get “re-engagement letters.”
“When a student misses a day or a period, we are asking staff to reach out to the family to ask, ‘Is everything OK? Are there any barriers we can assist you with?’” Dr. Simon said.
Kareem Farah, executive director of the Modern Classrooms Project, a nonprofit group that has trained more than 16,500 teachers over the last six months to make instructional videos for students, said one key to keeping students engaged was offering as little live instruction as possible. Instead, he said, teachers should use online time for bonding with students.
“If you use live class time to lecture, a lot of kids aren’t going to show up,” Mr. Farah said. “If you use it to engage them, to talk, to share, that totally changes the game. It makes kids eager to show up to class.”
Nicole J., a high school art teacher outside San Diego, said only a little more than half of her students show up regularly to live online class, although most have participated in at least some capacity; 9 percent have not attended at all in the four weeks since school started. She asked that her full name not be used because she had not sought approval to speak.
“I have been emailing, texting and calling home personally,” she said. “I have some students who I know are living across the border right now. Another is watching her 2-year-old sister all the time — that’s incredibly hard, to get anything done. Some have gotten jobs and are trying to fit school in around their work schedule.”
Many teachers are hoping to build on strategies that they tried last spring. Jennifer Donovan, a middle-school teacher in southern New Jersey who said about a third of her students did “little to no work” after remote learning began in March, said her school staff was having daily meetings to discuss attendance and using “phone calls, spreadsheets, rubrics” to track down missing students.