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Thousands of kids in Colorado’s largest school districts didn’t show up for spring remote learning. The race is on to find them.

Districts have devoted part of the summer to trying to regain contact with families who fell out of touch. They’ve called, texted and even visited homes.

Justin Castilla works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (AP Photo, David Zalubowski, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado’s largest schools lost contact with thousands of students during spring remote learning prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Colorado Sun survey of the state’s largest districts, and are now rewriting attendance protocols and scrambling to acquire technology to make sure it doesn’t happen again.  

Districts fell out of touch with students’ families despite their extensive efforts to reach them in any way they could — through phone calls, text messages, emails and, in some cases, home visits.

Those who likely stand to lose the most academic ground include Black and Hispanic students as well as students from low-income households, according to a study by the national consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Many students will only continue to suffer this coming school year if schools continue to oscillate between opening and closing because of the pandemic. Students who don’t get any instruction in any capacity during remote learning will lose 12-14 months of academic progress this next school year if schools continue to experience closures for health and safety, the study said.

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And opportunity gaps that have historically stood between low-income and high-income students have persisted, with 60% of low-income kids regularly accessing remote learning software, compared to 90% of high-income kids, according to data from Curriculum Associates, which developed the i-Ready digital teaching and assessing software. Colorado districts like Aurora Public Schools have used the software in their approach to remote learning.

The academic stakes for districts are high, and part of districts’ back-to-school plans have included trying to regain contact with those students who didn’t log on for remote learning in the spring. Some districts have tasked teachers with helping reach all students who are lined up for fall courses — regardless of how much they engaged last year. 

The Sun requested data from the 10 largest districts in Colorado, seeking the number of students districts could not reach during remote learning in the spring and details on how attendance was defined and managed. Nine responded. Academy School District 20, in El Paso County, did not reply to multiple inquiries about data.

MORE: Colorado’s governor says people should expect coronavirus school closures as in-person learning resumes

Much of the work began over the summer as districts relied on methods similar to what they used in the spring to get hold of families. The reasons for lost contact are diverse. In Douglas County School District, for instance, families reported a lack of engagement because of parents feeling overwhelmed, struggles with technology or the internet, the need to share devices within families, conflicts with work, no motivation and changes to dynamics at home.

Some districts are also moving forward with a stricter accountability system around attendance for the fall than their approach in the spring. 

As districts raced to iron out a remote learning system starting in March, attendance policies fell by the wayside. Some districts, like Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Thornton, measured attendance and engagement once a week based on students completing tasks and turning in assignments. Others, like Poudre School District in northern Colorado, gathered districtwide engagement data for secondary schools but charged elementary and middle school principals with the responsibility of tracking whether students were engaged and how they would measure that.

Parents and students pick up backpacks filled with school supplies at the central administration offices of Adams 12 school district in Thornton, August 21, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Districts largely spared students — and their grades — during a chaotic spring so that their academic records wouldn’t be compromised by the challenges of moving swiftly to online learning.

The Colorado Department of Education, which typically requires schools to record attendance twice daily, also eased up last spring after the Colorado State Board of Education approved a waiver from that mandate. CDE is advocating for an update to the rules that would require districts to take attendance once a day. The State Board of Education will vote on that recommendation in September. The department also is giving districts engaged in remote learning the flexibility to take attendance according to what works best for them.

DPS recorded 86% attendance during remote instruction

Denver Public Schools, with 92,000 students, said it had only 67 students with no engagement in spring remote learning and “no successful contact from their school.” Though each DPS school was empowered to take attendance and measure engagement in the way that suited them, the district believes it achieved about 86% overall attendance after going fully remote, slightly lower than the 89-90% attendance recorded in the last two months of normal years.

DPS, Colorado’s largest school district, reviewed attendance, the success of various outreach strategies, and engagement on different electronic learning platforms, said Amber Elias, lead operational superintendent for DPS.

“We’ve made some big changes (for the new year), not just in the way we are providing instruction but in the way we are tracking attendance,” Elias said.

Attendance and engagement improved whenever spring teachers held live video classes for groups, rather than videos to watch later or emailed assignments, Elias said. For the new school year, all students of all ages will have live instruction online. Every student was to have been contacted by a teacher by Aug. 21, with questions about their home technology, internet access and ability to study at home.

Teachers will now take formal attendance on their video class links, just as they do for in-person sessions.

“It’s tough to draw a bright-line comparison, but we will know within a matter of weeks this year how our attendance compares to last year with a much more reliable apples-to-apples set,” she said.

An American flag is in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The attendance/absence system has also been overhauled. DPS has “lowered the bar” that triggers attendance followup, Elias said. Students will be contacted after just one unexcused absence; three will result in contacts to the family; five will trigger a schoolwide team to intervene and offer the family support.

Students will use only one platform for online learning, rather than overlapping systems, and engagement with those platforms can be monitored from the central district.

Jeffco educators prefaced the school year with “office hours”

Jeffco Public Schools, the state’s second-largest school district with more than 84,000 students, experienced an overall engagement rate of about 92% during spring remote learning, district spokeswoman Cameron Bell wrote in an email.

That means more than 6,700 students in the district were not participating in remote classes.

“We know the rapid change was a challenge for our entire community, and our schools did everything they could to reach all students,” Bell said, noting that the district switched to online learning in just three days. “And we know many of our students found themselves in challenging circumstances that placed obstacles in the way of learning. We were able to engage the majority of our students then, but know only 100% is acceptable and will strive to reach 100% for the new year.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

The district provided a sort of grading safety net for middle and high school students, in which the class grade a student had before remote learning started was the lowest possible grade they could receive so long as they continued participating. Elementary school students were given “more qualitative feedback” by teachers.

Jeffco’s attendance policy will become more rigid this fall, with teachers instructed to take attendance daily, Bell said.

A variety of staff members from the district worked to reach students in the spring, including school leaders, teachers, counselors, social workers and central support staff. 

For the start of this academic year, the district asked schools to contact families by phone, text and email, and during “office hours” intended to give all students time with their teachers, Bell said. Family engagement liaisons are being used by some schools to help reach the district’s most-impacted families, she said.

Jeffco leaders are confident educators will see a bump in engagement this fall.

“Having this time has allowed us to fine-tune our technology, gather resources to assist families, define protocols for attendance and engagement, and provide our school staff with training and planning time to meet the needs of all students,” Bell said.

Isabelle Espana, front, gets some help from Superintendent of Schools Susana Cordova as the young girl works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Cherry Creek will take attendance, drop hold-harmless grading

In Cherry Creek School District No. 5, a district of about 55,000 students, district administrators did not track attendance during remote learning in the spring, but individual principals kept tabs on how many students were not engaging, Abbe Smith, the district’s spokeswoman, said in an email.

The district, which covers part of Arapahoe County, declined to provide consistent types of data.

Smith said among the district’s 45 elementary schools, principals reported 122 students who did not engage in remote instruction in the spring.

Figures for middle school were broken down by raw student numbers, with a total of 27 students failing to participate in remote learning — 23 of them at Prairie Middle School.

MORE: Colorado students are improving in literacy — possibly to the detriment of their math skills. That’s bad for the economy.

Data for high school was broken down by percentages, ranging from 1% at Smoky Hill High School to 9.6% at Cherokee Trail High School who failed to participate.

Schools tried every way they could to contact families of students who weren’t involved in remote learning, with counselors, social workers, deans and cultural liaisons stepping in to help.

This fall, attendance for those students taking part in online schooling — about 10,500 — will be taken every day. Should students who have opted for in-person learning have to transition to remote because of the coronavirus, schools will continue taking attendance, Smith said, “and students will be accountable for their learning with grades.”

Multiple instruction platforms creates murky picture in Aurora

Aurora Public Schools, with 40,000 students, also left attendance and engagement tracking up to individual schools, and said it does not have an aggregate picture as a district of how many students were lost to the system in the spring.

“The Colorado Department of Education did not require school districts to track attendance during the spring remote learning period. Our individual schools followed whether students were engaging with our remote learning platform,” APS spokesman Corey Christiansen said in an e-mail response.

Aurora knows how many students accessed digital remote learning platforms during the spring at-home period, including Google Classroom, i-Ready and others, but says the number does not translate directly to “attendance” because teachers had authority to use all, some or none of the platforms.

Traci Whitfield, a fourth grade teacher at Dupont Elementary in the Adams 14 school district, teaches a class during remote learning. (Provided by Adams 14)

Aurora’s digital records show that in the week of May 4 to May 10, well into the pandemic stay-at-home period, only 80% of the total teacher and student community accessed Google Classroom for K-12, down 2% from the week before. Less than two-thirds of K-5 students accessed reading programs on iReady Access, and only 61% accessed math lessons on iReady.

Edgenuity, a platform for grades six to 12 in Aurora, saw 71% of sixth to eighth graders using the programs, but only 17.6% of juniors and seniors.

St. Vrain says 99.4% of students engaged

St. Vrain Valley Schools, with 33,000 students in Longmont and nearby cities, responded to queries with this: “St. Vrain Valley Schools ended the 2019-2020 school year with a student engagement rate of 99.36 percent.”

The Colorado Sun asked St. Vrain to follow up with more context for that number, which seems unusually high even for in-person learning in a large district. The district has not responded to requests for more context for their number, or details on how they measured “engagement.”

Technology woes, overwhelmed parents in DougCo

Douglas County School District, with 67,000 students, did ask principals at each school to report spring remote learning engagement to the district, and reported numbers to the school board in May. Douglas County requires a Colorado Open Records Act request from journalists in order to obtain copies of these memos presented to the board.

Engagement reported in Douglas County ranged from 85% at Highlands Ranch High School, up to 99% at Red Stone Elementary. Overall in the district, officials said 93% of students engaged remotely during the spring session, and that 99% of those who did not engage were contacted by the district and offered more help.

Losing contact with 7% of students in DougCo would still represent nearly 4,700 kids.

MORE: With Colorado schools resuming classes amid coronavirus, the outdoors provides a safe place to learn

Reasons families gave for not engaging included “parents overwhelmed, issues with technology or internet, device sharing, work/job conflicts, lack of motivation, changes in home dynamics” and more.

One elementary principal reported to the central office, “1 Student’s mom refuses tech, so we are sending worksheets home weekly. I am waiting on 1 student’s dad to order a chromebook so I can pick it up and deliver it to him.”

One Douglas County alternative school went to considerable lengths in its outreach, using measures from traditional communication to game nights to tutoring sessions to weekly postcards — and much more — to attempt to stay connected.

Adams 12 hopes looking more like “normal” school will keep kids engaged

Adams 12 Five Star Schools has devised a unique approach with its back-to-school plan. While the district is starting fall classes remotely, it will also offer learning pods to students, prioritizing those who need access to devices or the internet, followed by those whose parents are strapped with work.

The learning pods will serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade, opening up classrooms to them where they can focus on learning online while being supervised by district staff, said Lori Bailey, director of student engagement initiatives for the district.

Adams 12 Five Star Schools lost touch with 383 students in the spring, which represents 1.15% of all students. The district’s enrollment totals more than 38,700 students.

Parents and students pick up backpacks filled with school supplies at the central administration offices of Adams 12 school district in Thornton, August 21, 2020. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Bailey hopes to boost engagement this year, as district staff have reached out to families through the summer and are continuing into the fall.

Over the summer, staff visited homes, sent emails and made phone calls among other outreach efforts to try to make contact with those students who weren’t present online in the spring. The district has also worked to reach students who engaged in remote learning 25% of the time or less in the same ways, Bailey said.

While Adams 12 Five Star Schools measured attendance and engagement on a weekly basis in the spring, using student tasks and assignments to gauge how active students were, this year’s attendance and engagement policy will mirror what it would be during a typical school year, Bailey said. Elementary school educators will take attendance twice daily, while teachers in middle school and high school will take attendance each class period.

The district will also pivot its remote learning into a synchronous schedule this fall, so that students are learning in real time each period as their teachers conduct lessons live, which Bailey said should result in better attendance.

“It’ll look and feel much more like a typical school setting,” she said.

Boulder Valley’s biggest struggles traced to technology

Boulder Valley School District, which has about 31,000 students, focused on engagement more than attendance, said Chris Brecht, school and network leadership coordinator for the district.

BVSD lost contact with likely more than 3% to 4% of students — a range that is fairly consistent with the percentage of kids who struggle to engage during a traditional school year, Brecht added.

The district had support teams at each school that would respond to students who weren’t turning in assignments or replying to emails or communicating with teachers. Like staff in other districts, they reached out in a variety of ways, including through phone calls and text messages, so that they could understand why students did not engage, which many times ended up involving technology, Brecht said.

Emily Love helps her 7-year-old son Foster, a first grader at Pioneer Elementary School in Lafayette, with his work on March 31, 2020, the first day all students in the Boulder Valley School District migrated to online learning during the coronavirus shutdown. His older brother, Miles, 12, is working in a Google chat room on a physical science problem with one of his 6th grade classmates from Manhattan Middle School in Boulder. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

This school year, which started remotely for BVSD students, the district will move away from holding students harmless with their academics, as it did in the spring, and will implement more structure with a firmer attendance and accountability system. Families are craving more structure in the home learning environment, according to feedback the district received at the end of last year, Brecht said.

But BVSD will also temper that accountability with flexibility for families who have greater needs, spokesman Randy Barber added. The district is just as focused on equity as accountability, particularly as the pandemic has revealed gaps in resources among demographic groups.

Real struggles revealed in school-level reports from Poudre

Poudre School District, with 31,000 students in Northern Colorado, collected districtwide engagement information for secondary schools, but left data collection in elementary and middle schools to local principals. Poudre said maintaining strong connections with students was the “No. 1” priority in spring.

“PSD is proud of what teachers did for students and families, knowing they did their very best under extraordinary circumstances,” spokeswoman Madeline Noblett said in an email. “Middle and high school students went home before PSD schools closed in March with their district-issued laptops; students in grades K-5 do not typically take devices home, so a tremendous and rapid process began to get devices into the hands of our youngest learners so they were able to access their remote education.

“In total, staff distributed about 3,000 laptops and also worked with numerous community partners (City of Fort Collins, Connexion, Hixxa, and Broadcom, to name a few) to install mobile hotspots and broadband fiber in areas of the district in which staff identified students in need of internet connectivity.”

MORE: Here’s what 10 Colorado students say adults should know as the fall semester approaches

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

A spreadsheet on middle and high school responses from Poudre details more of the struggles in keeping real connections:

“Teachers anecdotally say that about 50% of the students really stayed fully engaged,” wrote a staffer from Cache La Poudre Middle School. “Many students partially engaged. It was very difficult for our IS and struggling learners. It was more difficult for sixth graders to manage the independent learning. The students who completely disengaged were almost all students who struggled with attendance and work completion when we were in session. Electives saw much less participation. Internet unreliability and speed contributed to students getting frustrated.”

Boltz Middle School said it was able to make contact with every one of its 630 students, but still had about 7.5% of students not participate or participate “very little” during remote learning.

“Of students who did not participate a large number of students were minorities, low-income, Spanish speaking and lived in 2500 E. Harmony trailer park. This is one of our most important findings as we sifted through our data,” Boltz told the district. “When we contacted these families, many had heartbreaking stories involving multiple families living in one trailer, no access to internet, taking care of siblings before working on their own assignments. 

“Many families or single parents also talked about the difficulty of helping their students while still trying to stay employed or no knowledge of the learning platforms we were using.”

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