First Bell

Principal, September/October 2020. Volume 100, Number 1.

Tracking Chronic Absences in Lockdown

Vulnerable children—especially economically disadvantaged children—are up to three times as likely to experience chronic absences from school at earlier ages, according to Attendance Works, and far less likely to make up for lost learning time in the classroom. But when classrooms are suddenly closed, it takes a coordinated effort to ensure students show up—no matter what instruction might look like.

Defined as missing 10 percent of school days or more, chronic absences put a student’s entire academic career at risk, according to “Data + Relationships to Strengthen Response to COVID-19,” a Zoom roundtable discussion NAESP held in April. “When you have high degrees of chronic absence, it is an alert,” said moderator Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works. “Our charge is to use that data point to begin prevention and early intervention.”

When schools in 35 states and the District of Columbia closed abruptly in mid-March, administrators used chronic absence data to identify children at risk. “Kids who are chronically absent prior to COVID-19 are those most at risk for falling behind after the schools closed,” Chang said. Tactics supporting quick interventions proved effective in getting kids to show up, even if their classrooms were now at the kitchen table.

David Douglas School District in Portland, Oregon, created a spreadsheet of the barriers families faced in accessing education from home. “We thought about what [lockdown] looked like for a family without the internet or access to a food pantry, understanding the whole time that the stress is on the families,” said Ericka Guynes, principal of Earl Boyles Elementary School. “We built relationships and coordinated learning, always thinking about the student.”

In Pomona, California, Harrison Elementary School first distributed the laptops and mobile hotspots kids needed to access instruction, then alerted parents that it would also provide grab-and-go meals—an important function, since up to 30 percent of its students are homeless. Principal Shandria Richmond-Roberts asked teachers to make sure that students stay “connected to us, rather than not learning anything,” she said. “I have a Google doc that shows which kids they haven’t heard from on a particular day.”
Getting families involved is essential, the principals agreed. “Family and parents are the child’s first teachers, so it is up to us to honor that fact,” Guynes said. “We are used to controlling the environment in classrooms, but right now, what we have control over is instruction. How we set that up is in a trusting relationship with the family, so they can take it into their homes and make it work.”

However school is defined this fall, the principals planned to draw upon parent input and professional development to find resources that will bring their diverse student bodies the help they need. “If we have the relationships, we will get this done together,” Richmond-Roberts said. “We are truly partners in their child’s education. We’re confident that together, we’re going to be OK.”

COVID Slide or COVID Slowdown?

NWEA released a report in April that forecasts the long-term effects of missing months of school on student achievement. Based on existing research on seasonal and summertime learning losses, the report says that achievement typically declines in the summer months, the declines tend to be steeper in math than in reading, and the losses are more marked in the upper grades.

The degree to which students lose ground over the summer varies. Representative data showed a slowdown equivalent to about two weeks of learning and occasionally small gains for children nationwide during the summers following kindergarten and first grade. For preliminary estimates of the impact of the extended “pause” in academic instruction during the coronavirus crisis, NWEA looked at a national sample of more than 5 million students in grades 3–8 who took MAP Growth assessments in 2017–2018. 

The study compared typical average growth trajectories by grade for students completing a typical school year versus projections under two scenarios for COVID-19 closures: a “slide,” in which students show patterns of academic setbacks typical of summers throughout an extended closure; and a “slowdown,” in which students maintain the same level of academic achievement they had when schools were closed (modeled as of March 15, 2020, with school resuming in fall).

The study says that missing school for a prolonged period will likely have major impacts on student achievement this fall. Preliminary COVID slide estimates suggest that students will return in fall 2020 with roughly 70 percent of the learning gains in reading relative to a typical school year and less than 50 percent of the learning gains in mathematics. In certain grades, students are forecast to wind up nearly a full year behind where they would be under normal conditions.

COVID-19 closures have produced additional aspects of trauma, resource loss, and opportunity loss that go beyond a traditional summer break, the study notes. More affluent families will likely cope better than families who rent housing, work in low-paying fields, and experience food insecurity, family instability, and other shocks.

To download the full report, visit

Teachers on Back-to-School Amid COVID-19

As educators reopen schools and welcome students after summer break, a review of teachers’ experiences at the start of the coronavirus crisis can shed light on what to expect this fall. A poll conducted in late May by USA Today/Ipsos surveyed teachers about their experiences and expectations for the school year. Most teachers reported they are working more than usual, but two-thirds said they haven’t been able to do their jobs properly under lockdown.

“As our world has changed, almost everything we do has changed, including how we view and approach education,” Ipsos President of U.S. Public Affairs Cliff Young said in a report. “Though Americans are optimistic about a return to in-person learning, there is angst among teachers, parents, and America at large about how to keep our schools safe if the virus isn’t fully contained.”

Teachers are struggling with new demands. Four out of 5 (83 percent) say they are having a more difficult time doing their jobs. Among teachers who have been on the job for five years or less, 6 in 10 say they hadn’t been trained adequately for the tasks they have taken on as a result of the pandemic. Other findings:

Children might be falling behind. Three-fourths (76 percent) of teachers say that reliance on distance learning is making students fall behind. Parents are also worried about their children, but only 46 percent say their children are at risk of falling behind. 
Tech access is not an issue (for most). While almost all parents said their children have internet access sufficient for distance learning, about 10 percent said their children didn’t have the software or equipment they needed. For children in households with annual incomes of less than $50,000 a year, that percentage exceeded 20 percent.

Blended solutions are gaining ground. About two-thirds of teachers and parents alike support returning to the classroom on a limited basis and using distance learning on other days. Parents are more inclined to extend the length of the school year (47 percent) than teachers (34 percent). 
Like it or not, about two-thirds of parents (63 percent) and teachers (65 percent) expected schools in their areas to reopen in the fall. Most parents and teachers agree that masks will be expected, but they foresee challenges in maintaining social distancing.

Morale Is Suffering in Virtual Classrooms, EdWeek Research Says

Shifting quickly from face-to-face interactions to a virtual setting has dampened morale among teachers and students, according to research from the Education Week Research Center, the research arm of Education Week. Its nationwide online poll of 1,720 educators administered April 7–8 offers several key insights. Among them:

  1. Student and teacher morale is down. The teachers and district leaders surveyed reported that morale was lower than prior to the pandemic for 61 percent of students and 56 percent of teachers. Everything from missing the daily routine and personal interaction to canceling celebrations such as prom and graduation is likely at fault.
  2. Teachers are spending more time on instruction and communication, but equity issues persist. More than half (56 percent) of teachers in low-poverty districts interacted with their students at least once a day, compared with about 1 in 3 in districts in which three-quarters or more of students come from low-​income families.
  3. Email is the most common form of teacher-​student interaction. But 1 in 5 elementary teachers reported communicating with their students in person while observing social distancing measures.
  4. More than a fifth of students are not participating in school. On average, 21 percent of students were essentially truant during coronavirus closures. Percentages were highest in districts in which more than three-quarters of students are from low-income families.
  5. District leaders are trying to address equity. Almost all (99 percent) of district leaders say they did something to address equity during school closures. Unfortunately, only 31 percent of leaders in districts where poverty rates exceed 75 percent reported that everyone who needed internet access had it.
  6. 6. Educators are most concerned students will fall behind in math. More than half of educators said they were “very concerned” that students will fall behind in math during school closures, although English/language arts was a close second.
  7. The arts are tough to teach remotely. While they weren’t as concerned about learning losses in the arts, 27 percent of educators said such subjects are “very challenging” to teach remotely.
  8. Few students face consequences for schoolwork left undone. Fewer than half of elementary school teachers (43 percent) said they continued to fully or partially count work, and 59 percent of middle school teachers said the same. But only 22 percent of schools said there would be consequences if students didn’t do their work.

Police Presence Doesn’t Make Black Students Feel Safer

White students feel safer in the presence of police than Black students, according to a survey of New Orleans students conducted by Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance during the 2018–2019 school year. While 69 percent of white students said they felt safer in the presence of police, only 40 percent of Black students said the same.

“There is this really, really large racial gap in students’ experiences with the same police force,” said Lindsay Weixler, associate director. “The majority of Black students—and these are kids as young as sixth grade—do not feel safer when police are present. And that is the exact opposite of what you would want the police to do for children.”

Tulane completed the survey before the coronavirus pandemic began but released the results in June, following nationwide demonstrations in response to the killing of George Floyd in police custody. The event has prompted many districts to reexamine the role of police in schools; since then, the Minneapolis school board unanimously voted to end its contract with the police.

Students felt more positive about security guards at their schools, but racial gaps remained. About 77 percent of white students reported feeling safer when security guards were present, but only about 54 percent of Black students reported the same. These results mirrored the results of a Pew survey of adult perceptions released in April: 84 percent of white adults had confidence that the police would act in the public’s best interest, while just 54 percent of Black adults said the same.

About half of public schools nationwide have assigned police officers, federal data says.

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