COVID-19 spring attendance data reveals challenges of remote learning, lessons for fall

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel, Ross Weidner and Jonathan Fagg WLS logo
Monday, August 24, 2020
Attendance data reveals challenges of remote learning, lessons for fall
The I-Team has been tracking school attendance data to try to get a sense of student engagement during pandemic related remote learning across the Chicago area.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- After first discovering some practically empty virtual classrooms this spring, the I-Team has been tracking school attendance data to try to get a sense of student engagement during pandemic related remote learning across the Chicago area.

RELATED: Illinois COVID-19 remote learning yields some nearly empty online classrooms

As a second round of remote learning gets underway, using the Freedom of Information Act, the I-Team sought attendance data from local school districts as schools try to meet the challenges of remote learning.


Queen Bee School District 16 in west suburban Glendale Heights is on track for a hybrid learning model - splitting the week between in-person and remote learning. In the spring, district officials said they met the challenge of the pandemic by carefully planning.

"It was kind of like a beautiful chaos," said Alyssa Kerke, an elementary school teacher.

"Our engagement was completing assignments, interacting with your teacher, and attendance was: our secretaries, we issued cell phones and they called everyone who we hadn't heard from every day," said Joe Williams, Queen Bee School District 16 Superintendent.

Queen Bee teachers found they needed diverse solutions to reach the district's 1,700 students, 49 different languages are spoken district wide, and many families needed flexibility to face COVID-19 challenges.

RELATED: Illinois back to school plans: K-12 school district reopening plans

"Initially, like the beginning, technology was like a challenge for me as well as like, parents,... by the end of, like, academic year my students were doing very well," said Fatima Mohiuddin, an ELL Bilingual Resource Teacher.

"Our teachers were super dedicated in the spring, even after hours like seven, eight, nine o'clock at night for those parents that worked, you know we made ourselves available," Amy Halden, Special Education Resource Teacher told the I-Team.

"Personal phone calls connecting with parents what's going on, how can I help you? Do you understand the technology?" said Annel Justiniano, Director of English Language Learning, describing how they made sure student engagement continued during remote learning.

FOIA data obtained by the I-Team showed that Queen Bee's district attendance at Queen Bee for remote learning in the spring was at 97.9%, while schools across the Chicago area averaged 92%.

Without clear state guidelines, many districts chose different ways to track attendance.

Twenty five suburban districts reported attendance of 100%-- some defaulting all students to "present"- instead of trying to measure actual engagement.

Some schools reported very low engagement: Lincoln Elementary School District 156 in Calumet City reported 51.4% and Hazel Crest School District 152.5 reported 51.7%.

Thornton Fractional High School District had 52.9% average attendance.

"We have to do a better job, and we're putting in mechanisms to ensure that our kids are attending class," said Sophia Jones-Redmond, the new superintendent of Thornton Fractional District 215. Jones-Redmond took over this summer - and said remote learning this fall will include directly reaching out if students aren't tuning in.

"It was an unprecedented time, it still is an unprecedented time. But what we've had is time on our side to really plan," Jones-Redmond told the I-Team. "I think in the spring what happened, the message got out that it wasn't going to count towards you or against you if you participated in class. We're starting off with 'this is not an option.' You are expected to," she continued.

"I think there's a lot of chaos. It was a lot of people trying to figure things out on the fly. And some schools were much more organized and ready for that," said Elaine Allensworth, Director, University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. She said districts will need to find new metrics other than simply tracking attendance in order to gauge successful engagement during the continuing remote learning environment.

"We have to start thinking about attendance differently and... engagement differently," Allensworth said. "I do think we have to think about it in terms of, 'are students showing that they're doing some kind of work?'"

Some Chicago Public Schools also struggled with engagement this spring, CPS reporting 84.9% attendance district-wide on average.