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Richmond School Attendance Improved, but Concerns Remain

Zoom call
School board members heard a presentation on student attendance data during a Tuesday meeting. (Source: Screenshot from Facebook)

The Richmond School Board reviewed updated attendance rates during a meeting last night. While rates have improved from earlier in the virtual school year, the board voiced disappointment and confusion.

Harry Hughes, RPS Chief Schools Officer, presented the attendance data for the first half of the 2020-2021 school year. 

As of the 20th day of classes, in October, 21.2% of RPS students were on track to become chronically absent. That number has slightly decreased to 17.4% as of the 90th day of school this year. The current chronic absenteeism rate is about the same as this time last year, which was 16.9%.

“So does this improved data mean that we don’t have work to do? Or that we’re satisfied with this overall attendance rate? Absolutely not,” Hughes said. “But what I can proudly share today is that COVID is not impacting our attendance in ways that it initially did.”

Hughes explained a student is considered “chronically absent” when they are absent for at least 10% of the school year, including both excused and unexcused absences. In a 180 day school year, chronic absenteeism occurs after 18 days missed.

Attendance rates
(Source: Richmond Public Schools)

While Hughes presented the data as at least somewhat positive, board members were quick to draw criticism.

“I do depart from the administration in regards to finding anything to celebrate in the data. Candidly, I’m not sure said data is worth the paper it’s written on,” said Board Member Jonathan Young. He said comparing last year’s attendance rates to this year’s is “not an apples-and-apples comparison,” because attendance works differently during virtual learning.

Hughes defended the attendance data, acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the district to “move the goalposts,” but expressing gratitude for the engagement work of school staff.

“We could have gone backwards in the data… We conducted over 4,000 home visits, during a global pandemic where safety was an issue,” he said. “While I do understand your concerns about the data, I do think I’m very proud of all the work that different RPS stakeholders have done to improve the data, because we could have went the wrong direction.”

Still, Hughes acknowledged that virtual learning has posed new and unique challenges when it comes to tracking student attendance. 

He explained that according to Virginia law, once a child is physically in school, they are marked as present, regardless of whether that child is in school for one minute, one hour, or seven hours. 

“Now of course, during a normal school year, this makes more sense,” Hughes said. “But in the virtual environment, it is possible for a student to turn his camera off, because we are not making students turn their camera on… And again, it is possible for that student to be marked as present.”

In the scenario that a child turns their camera off during virtual instruction and teachers cannot verify if that child is still engaged in class, Hughes says that child would then be marked as an “unexcused early dismissal,” not as absent, raising concerns among school board members that the current attendance data may be unreliable. 

After Hughes’ presentation, the board approved a waiver to an attendance policy that denies credit to high schoolers and promotion to elementary and middle schoolers, given the extraordinary circumstances of the current school year. While it was approved unanimously, Board Member Shonda Harris-Muhammed recognized that attendance issues precede COVID-19.

“We were having attendance issues in 2017, 2018, 2019. Attendance issues did not occur because of the pandemic. I think we’re using the pandemic to provide grace to these students,” she said.

Despite the criticism, board members also praised improvements shown at some individual schools. Board Chair Cheryl Burke drew special attention to Armstrong High School, which has shown an increase of almost 20% in “good attendance” — students who are not on track to become chronically absent.

Hughes says the following schools have also seen significant increases in “good attendance” of at least 5%: Franklin Military Academy, Ginter Park Elementary, Swansboro Elementary, Cary Elementary, Boushall Middle, Huguenot High, Richmond Community High, George Wythe High, Armstrong High, John Marshall High and Richmond Alternative School.