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What Every District and Teacher Must Know About Improving Attendance and Engagement During Remote Learning

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One of the biggest challenges teachers face during remote and hybrid learning is student attendance dropping significantly from normal in-school attendance rates.

Challenges with student attendance may have been understandable at the onset of the pandemic when students were settling into new, unfamiliar routines. By fall 2020, a majority of schools prepared for virtual learning, and shared expectations with students and families to help ensure a successful digital transition.

While the COVID-19 vaccine offers a glimmer of hope, despite some reluctance from those skeptical about receiving the vaccine due to the speed in which it was created, some reports predict that things may not get back to “normal” until the third quarter of 2021. While schools grapple with the challenges of remote learner attendance, rectifying it requires a deeper understanding of its cause.

What prevents students from attending and engaging in remote learning?

According to the Hechinger Report, nearly 3,000 students in the San Antonio school district never logged on when the move was made to remote learning. Another survey of 5,659 educators from across the country found that 34 percent of respondents said only a quarter of the students in their class were actually attending remote classes, while a majority of respondents said that fewer than half of their students attended class.

Remote learning attendance and engagement issues plague the entire country, but reports have shown that they’re most prevalent in urban school districts with low-socioeconomic status. At the end of the first week of remote learning in Detroit, for example, the attendance rate dropped 22 percentage points from the same time the previous year.

There are several reasons why we are seeing a steep decline in attendance and engagement rates in regards to remote learning. Several students must contend with barriers such as lack of access to the internet or a device capable of connecting to the internet, as well as family, health, and other trauma issues.

Limited access to technology and resources will always be a concern in school districts, but there are several things that schools can do to address the family and health issues that attribute to chronic absenteeism. Dr. Lisa Downey, assistant principal of Mineola High School, elaborated on how household issues in particular affected her students. “Clerical staff would call students who were missing classes, either daily or weekly, to check in and see how they were doing and remind them about assignments and class times,” said Downey. “But most importantly,” she continued, “we wanted to make sure they were okay. Sometimes parents or other family members were sick, which could absolutely impact attendance.”

Dr. Downey underscores an important point here, which is that attendance is not simply tied to academics. When a student does not show up for class on a regular basis, educators and administrators are left wondering if that student is safe and if their basic needs are being met. Improving remote learning attendance rates is critical to ensuring the well-being and academic success of students. Students’ social and emotional well-being during this period of interrupted education, and potential exposure to trauma, are all key concerns of school leaders and teachers nationwide.

How do we ensure every child is able to access, attend, and engage during remote learning?

While many schools employ third-party partners to track attendance virtually, it must be understood that this kind of educational technology is simply a tool to track attendance and identify problem areas. Technology alone is not a strategy; it needs to be powered by the knowledge and skills of teachers who interact with students every day.

Here are some strategies teachers can implement to help foster authentic and meaningful interactions with students. These strategies are built around the concept of rapport-building and holding students accountable for their education — thereby instilling a motivation to attend online classes and engage with the lessons, their teachers, and peers.

Build Student Support Systems

The first step to improving student attendance is to focus on supporting students beyond academics. If a student’s well-being is compromised, learning cannot take place. The Mineola School District took a social and emotional approach first to ensure that learning could follow.

“The biggest need for students was support,” said Downey. “The first few weeks of remote learning, we had teachers check in with students and make sure they were okay, rather than focusing on the content. Those early check-ins, which continued throughout the spring and even into the start of the 2020-21 school year, helped the students and teachers get on the same page, and let the students know that their teachers were there to support them.” By investing in supportive structures that students can depend on for social and emotional support, you’ll ensure team members always have a finger on the pulse of student needs. It also ensures students have a predictable place to appeal for help when in crisis.

Foster a Culture of Learning Accountability

When a student doesn’t show up for their online classes — assuming there are no obstacles hindering their ability to attend — or refuses to engage during instruction, they’re making the decision to not be responsible for their learning. Teachers have to go beyond the tactics of implementing consequences for these undesirable behaviors and instead build bridges to connect students with their learning, and help inspire a motivation to attend class and engage. By practicing these strategies consistently with students, learning accountability can be achieved, thus driving positive student outcomes.

  1. Focus on Student Buy-In: To begin the practice of fostering a culture of learning accountability, teachers should first focus on student buy-in. Abigail A. Parks, a New York State certified teacher and iTutor educator, explained what a typical online learning session looks like for her and how she gained buy-in from her students, which created a pathway to them taking more accountability for their participation.
    “The first five minutes of my class is usually just chit-chat and picking up one of the last conversations I had with a student,” said Parks. “I get to learn things about the students, and they get to know things about me. By being open and vulnerable enough, it really develops a connection with the students.”
  2. Create and Share Clear Expectations: Another strategy for cultivating a culture of accountability is to set clear classroom expectations and share them with students. Not only will this provide clarity on what is expected from them in every online class, but it will embolden them to take responsibility for meeting those expectations to advance their achievement. Going a step further with this would be making the development of classroom expectations a collaborative effort with all students in the class. By making this a class endeavor, teachers can use it as a building block to cultivate a classroom community where students are given a voice that contributes to their learning — which brings us to our next strategy in fostering a culture learning accountability.
  3. Ownership of Learning: Facilitating a pathway for students to take ownership of their learning requires all of the above. From gaining their trust by building an authentic relationship where they feel seen and heard, to fueling their decision-making skills — which is a key component of social-emotional learning. When students take responsibility for their education, it’s a clear path towards a motivation to learn.

Implementing these strategies to improve remote learning attendance and bolster student engagement is critical to the success of both students and teachers alike. Building out these proven methods to foster learning accountability will allow teachers to easily transition into the learning portion of online sessions and focus on their core teaching strategies.

Developing Authentic Rapport Between Teachers, Students, and Families

Rapport building, not just between teachers and students but with the family as well, is central to student success and motivation — thus improving attendance. Researchers have been keenly interested in the effects of teacher-student rapport in the classroom, and have circled this topic for decades with predictable results. Investing in the connection between teacher and student is shown to be a significant predictor in cognitive and affective learning (Frisby and Martin (2010) and has been linked to strong attendance and academic engagement (Benson, Cohen, and Buskist (2005).

During the COVID19 pandemic, there has been a need for many students and families to remain at home and school districts have appropriately focused on rapport-building between students, teachers, and families to boost attendance and engagement. According to Dr. Downey, there are two ways teachers can begin to build rapport very quickly with students and families. Start every teaching session with a check-in to see how your students are doing. Hold “virtual spirit days” that can bring students together and remind them that they’re part of a larger community. This is something that students may be missing, especially if they’re in a completely remote learning environment. It can be challenging with larger student loads to recall intimate details from each student home life, but often, these recollections pay dividends when forming secure, trusting relationships. Teachers can use these details about a student and family to check in throughout synchronous sessions, or even via messages throughout asynchronous learning.

However, Dr. Downey also mentions that peer-to-peer rapport among students is just as important. “We actually started something called ‘hybrid partners’ in September. Since we’re going hybrid this year and our students are alternating days, we have them paired up with students who are on opposite day schedules. Having that connection is great since students can go to each other in case they missed something or didn’t understand something in class.”

Research has proven that addressing students’ social and emotional needs before academic achievements is at the core of providing a safe and productive learning environment. The reward in investing in rapport-building will yield high attendance rates during remote instruction.

Want to learn more about improving remote learner attendance rates? Watch the recording from iTutor’s live webinar with Dr. Lisa Downey and NYS Certified Teacher Abigail A. Parks on, How Schools Can Improve Student Attendance During Remote Learning.


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