Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVIDThis piece is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation. For more on the series, click on this sentence.
While Renee Bourke, principal of Prospects Heights Middle School in Orange County, agreed to run a report comparing this year’s attendance so far to last year’s, she later declined to provide such information.
Several of the teachers at her building also didn’t respond to media requests to provide context on how they’ve adjusted their classrooms to the COVID-19 pandemic, which are operating on a hybrid model.
But in a previous interview in November, Bourke said that attendance has remained the same.
“My population has not changed, so my enrollment has not gone down. It has remained pretty much the same as last year,” Bourke said. “We’re all — I’m sure — trying to figure out how to look at attendance and how to attract attendance.”
Virginia schools are still required to record attendance regardless of their instructional model, said Holly Coy, assistant superintendent for policy, equity and communications for Virginia.
“While state code and Board of Education regulations provide some parameters for attendance and required interventions for failure to attend, the detailed nuance of attendance policies are largely determined at the local level,” Coy said.
Guidance on attendance for this year was issued to school divisions in a July 24 memo from James F. Lane, state superintendent of public instruction. Data on students’ attendance is being collected for the school year, Coy said, but the state does not have data to report at this time.
“As for academic data, divisions track the most granular data throughout the year. For the 2020-2021 school year, the state has waived a few assessments which are only state mandated,” Coy said.
“But the academic assessments mandated by the federal government have not been waived this school year. Therefore, at this point in time, [Standards of Learning] tests are/will be administered and data on achievement collected by the department,” Coy said.
Bourke said her staff has been tracking students’ attendance via Canvas, an online learning platform that monitors students’ engagement and provides data pertaining to attendance. It allows teachers to see when students log in, to which classes they log in and how they participate and communicate with their teachers.
Students enrolled in in-person instruction are counted present as they show up to school. And those who are taking part in virtual learning are being counted present as they log in and engage in Canvas. If they’re at home and not attending, it would show up as a distant learning absence.
“But we also know that we … have families that are in certain situations. We have some students engaged in their learning after school hours,” she said.
“Parents communicate that with us, and we can see that they log on and then we go back and mark them as present,” Bourke said
Educators in Orange, knowing children are from all economic backgrounds and some of them may be self-conscious about their homes, are not requiring students to show their faces as they participate in online learning. But as the class proceeds with activities, teachers are able to track whether the students are participating.
Teaching online involves looking at planning and engaging students differently, Bourke said, so she has been proud of how her teachers have been able to adapt to the pandemic. She boasted the teachers have worked hard to learn Canvas and to post instruction materials as well as do live meetings.
“Our teachers have been doing a fabulous job not just at my school, but I think in Orange County,” she said. “Overall, I’m proud of my educators taking on that challenge of learning a new platform to teach children. That was a huge challenge, but one that they have taken on and done well with.”
While teachers are tracking attendance, they’re also tracking performance, Bourke said.
In doing so, the staff looks at different factors, including whether students are completing assignments. The staff would then set up a recovery plan to determine what the barrier is for the child.
“It could be that the children may not be coming in person. And one of the solutions is that parents end up sending their child in person, so that they’re getting face-to-face help with an instructor in the content area,” she said.
“We’ve done a lot of home visits,” Bourke said, adding that could involve ensuring whether the students have adequate internet access, a comfortable area to learn virtually or if technology is needed.
Internet connectivity has been among parents’ concerns that have propelled rural schools to reopen. And Orange County Public Schools are not an exception. Orange, which has a population of about 38,000, is a rural county that sits northeast of the Charlottesville metro area and southwest of Fredericksburg’s.
Bourke said the school district has attempted to remedy the problem by providing hotspots to children or technology — 55 devices at her building to be exact — to those in need. Breaking access to internet barriers can also involve figuring out what the family’s service providers are and putting them in touch with a different provider.
While some parents stay virtual or send their children to the buildings, some also choose to stay offline, meaning their children don’t go to school in person or have access to the internet.
The district meets the needs of these families differently by instituting a process in which at the beginning of the school where school staff download and prepare materials ahead of time and the family could go to a hotspot area to access it.
The population of students opting for offline learning is small, and their attendance is counted when they submit assignments, Bourke said.
“It really is whatever works for that individual family. But from the beginning, we’ve been able to provide offline files for students to be able to work offline and then resubmit,” Bourke said.