NC teachers, education experts worry lack of attendance will negatively impact students' learning, wellbeing

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Daily attendance is one of the things schools across North Carolina have put a hold on as learning transitions online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While attendance is one factor for student's grades, it's also a way for teachers to monitor students' participation and well-being.

Educators across the state have scrambled to continue education in a new virtual environment, but experts predict the lack of in-classroom learning will likely have an impact down the road.

Alex Lyons is a Kindergarten teacher in Wake County. She said she's most concerned about the impact to students who were already struggling before the semester.

"I didn't think they necessarily were ready to go to first grade, so this just made it more difficult because as a teacher I know exactly what a student needs, but we can only offer so much," Lyons said about a few of the students in her class.

She said she's not marking attendance but is keeping track of students' participation for the online assignments.

"It's kind of more 'lax because the students if they don't do it, they don't do it," Lyons explained.

She does reach out if she hasn't seen participation from the students in days. After week of not hearing from a child, she said she has to report it to the principal.

A spokesperson for Wake County Schools said most schools have been in touch with 85-90% of their students. However, the district said engagement in classes is lower; around 60-75%.

Durham Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools also are not keeping formal attendance.

Bill Medlin, the executive director of the Professional Educators of North Carolina (PENC), said statewide attendance is not being tracked because educators didn't want to punish students for lack of resources.

"I think the board's spirit of that rule was we didn't want to hold the students harmless just because the fact that they didn't have the capabilities to come on to these virtual sites and be involved with them," he explained.

Since COVID-19, the digital divide between the state has become clearer.

In Wake and Durham counties, 3-5% of households report not having a computer.

But in other areas of the state like Northhampton and Halifax counties that percent is closer to 20% with nearly 60% of household reporting lack of high-speed internet access.

"In these urban settings a lot of these schools have the wherewithall to have their schools provide them with laptops and Chromebooks and things, but in some of the rural places, they don't have that luxury," Medlin said.

Even within counties, access to technology differs.

A spokesperson for Durham Public Schools said the district is not tracking participation, citing challenges with access to technology.

"Due to a deep digital divide in Durham County, DPS is supporting our students with remote instruction that includes online and printed options. Our teachers and staff are reaching out to students to encourage and connect with them during this remote learning. Because of the variety of means of engagement, we are not tracking a formal participation rate at this time," DPS spokesperson Chip Sudderth wrote in an email.

Relaxing attendance and participation tracking also creates an unintended consequence of less attention on students whose home life might not be as stable.

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"Where prior we had teachers that laid eyes on kids every day and could look for concerning things that were on children, whether that was marks or behavior or kids that were sleeping or kids that didn't have the food that they needed during the day," said Deana Joy, the executive director of Children's Advocacy Centers of North Carolina. "And currently they're not able to do that. And so, the concern for us is what are we missing with children and families by not being able to see them every day."

Joy said since the pandemic began there has been a 40% decrease in child abuse reports across the state.

"Obviously we don't believe that abuse has all of a sudden reduced by 40% due to the pandemic. We're seeing a reduction in reports because children don't have safe adults that can report on their behalf," Joy said.

She explained a similar decrease in reports usually occurs in the summer months, typically around 5-10% reduction.

Joy called this big of a change in reporting 'scary,' especially considering abuse tends to increase with stress and the pandemic has brought stressors along with challenges to access to food and housing.

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Joy said advocacy centers are sending pamphlets and coloring books with resources out to schools who are also delivering meals.

While districts aren't tracking formal attendance, teachers are still advised to keep a pulse on student's activities remotely.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools said if students are not engaged for two days online, teachers are expected to reach out to the family and the district is keeping a list of students who consistently hard to get ahold of.

"The social/emotional wellness of our students is a top priority, now more than ever. Teachers are checking in on students through email, phone calls, and/or live check-in sessions through Google Meet. Social/emotional learning has also been embedded into weekly activities," a spokesperson for Chapel Hill/ Carrboro City Schools wrote in an email.

Medlin, who is also an advisor on the state's Return-to-School Task Force, compared educators' situation to "learning to fly this plane while it's in the air."

He said he foresees testing or evaluations being needed when schools reopen to measure the impact this semester has had on students.

"You're going to have to have some sort of benchmark. Where are we at this point in time? And I'm sure there is going to have to be a lot of additional remote learning after school hours, physical hours, with some of these students," Medlin said.

Medlin said the state is hoping to offer a summer program to help students who were failing before this semester.

Joy also said she fears the impact the digital divide will have on students' growth.

"I do think we're going to see an inequity in education level of children, not only based on those that didn't have access to that remote learning, but based on their, the different ways that they process information and the kids that were able to absorb and retain versus the kids that were not," she said.

As remote learning continues, Joy encourages neighors and volunteers at school meal distribution sites to keep an eye on the kids in their communities.

For teachers, Joy recommends watching out for things in the background of student's video screens.

"What do you see in the picture around those kids? What are you hearing beyond that child? Are there other people that are talking in that house? And if so, what do you hear? What's the tone? What's the volume? What's the pitch that's happening?" she said.

Joy said anyone who might be concerned about what they are seeing can report suspected abuse to the Department of Health and Human services, law enforcement or the national hotline for child abuse, 1-800-4-A-CHILD. You do not have to have physical evidence of abuse to file a report.
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