Thousands of Arkansas students never finished the spring semester online after the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close, and many who have logged on this fall are struggling.
Just how many kids remained engaged is a mystery because few Arkansas public school districts kept proper attendance records after schools were shut down by order of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Despite a state law requiring schools to keep quarterly average attendance records, most schools simply told the state Department of Education that they had 100% attendance after school moved online.
Even this semester, some schools have struggled to reengage students. Most districts have begun reporting attendance again, but at least one of the districts examined by this newspaper -- Academic Plus Charter Schools -- was still reporting 100% attendance through mid-September.
The North Little Rock School District is one of the few large districts that actually tried to track student engagement after schools closed for in-person instruction in March. It found that many families may not have taken school seriously after learning that teachers would not cover new material for the remainder of the semester, said Keith McGee, interim superintendent.
"We just couldn't get them to log on," McGee said.
In Siloam Springs, the school district reported 100% attendance after the shutdown. Superintendent Jody Wiggins noted that parents and children were told that grades wouldn't be negatively affected regardless of remote learning participation.
"We did not have firm guidance on what [attendance] should look like," Wiggins said. "And we got a lot of guidance to be lenient with our kids. It was impossible to know who was engaged and who was not, and we didn't have anything to hold over their heads at that point either."
Educators and parents say many students who disappeared had trouble logging on, little supervision, difficulty learning virtually in English or needed to work during the day to help their families make ends meet.
The issue wasn't resolved over the summer, as some districts continue to see lower-than-usual attendance. Educators spent the break planning to improve student learning and engagement, and ensuring all students had the necessary technology.
School is better now than it was in the spring, educators and parents agree, but some students are still less engaged than before the novel coronavirus changed K-12 education.
In the spring, the North Little Rock School District counted 5,611 of its 7,669 students participating in remote learning -- not quite three in four students. During the other three quarters of the school year, the district had average attendance rates of 95.2%, 93.8% and 93%.
This semester, thousands of students are now going to campus for class, and more families have Wi-Fi hot spots to connect them to the internet for remote learning. The district doesn't have enough laptops for every child to take one home, but educators are making sure students who need laptops can check them out.
Juan Carlos Posadas bought an old laptop and a second computer screen for his 16-year-old son to complete the spring semester and to continue virtual instruction this fall at North Little Rock High School. Posadas, a community representative on the district's reopening task force, thinks the district has a better handle on virtual learning and more families have access to needed technology.
Jennifer Cavnor, whose daughter Anna is a North Little Rock High School student, agrees. Cavnor is more worried about her daughter's preparation for college, the changing landscape of standardized testing and her social well-being.
But as a pediatric physical therapist, she wonders whether some of her clients can handle virtual learning this fall because they are young and often the primary caretaker of their siblings.
Posadas said some students are still falling through the cracks.
Many students in the Hispanic community struggle to communicate in English, and virtual instruction this spring was even more challenging than a traditional semester -- even if they could connect to the internet, he said. Many chose to work to help their families make ends meet, while planning to do coursework when they aren't working. That continues this fall.
"If they have the opportunity ... to attend school and to work, then they will take advantage of that," he said.
"They think they are learning, but they're not," he added.
Students in the North Little Rock district are expected to log on if they aren't physically in the classroom. They must meet with their teachers to be counted present, and administrators pop in and out of virtual lessons to ensure classes are going smoothly.
Still about 400 registered students who had enrolled or were expected to enroll hadn't shown up to school at all this fall through mid-September, not even once, McGee said.
Video, radio and social media campaigns, as well as using existing contact information for parents, has resulted in more than 300 of those students being enrolled by early October, spokesman Dustin Barnes said.
On Wednesday, the Arkansas Department of Education announced a new partnership designed to locate and enroll students who haven't shown up to school yet this fall, called ENGAGE Arkansas. Graduation Alliance, one of the partners, will provide outreach and support for those struggling academically or technologically, and it will increase access to telehealth services. Education Renewal Zones, the other partner, will attempt to locate students who have not shown up to school yet and their families and try to help them begin learning again.
North Little Rock's attendance data offers one of the only glimpses into student engagement during the last half of the spring semester. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette requested, from 25 school districts, attendance reports from the final quarter of the last school year and for data on students who completed the spring term's remote or online coursework after schools closed.
Of the districts that responded, North Little Rock's was the only one to provide data on spring term completion. More provided reports, also submitted to the Arkansas Department of Education, showing perfect attendance this spring.
Per Arkansas state law, school districts are required to submit quarterly attendance reports to the state Education Department. The department leaves how to compile the data up to the districts. But state funding is based on average enrollment, not attendance.
The newspaper obtained some attendance data for this fall. Reported attendance so far is relatively normal at the Bryant and Cabot school districts.
It started fairly normally in Siloam Springs before dropping off after a couple of weeks. By mid-September, attendance was dropping below 90% daily, ultimately to 79.1% on Sept. 9.
Through Sept. 11, reported attendance in the Pulaski County Special School District varied depending on the school and grade. Attendance was above 90% for many grades but below 80% in many others, more often younger grades.
One online learning provider has published data on student participation after schools closed in March.
Zearn, a math instruction provider, is built to be a complement to math instruction, rather than an entire math curriculum on its own, said Billy McRae, director of research and strategy.
The company saw a decline in use this spring, although it's unclear if that was the result of a switch to another math provider or because of a lack of engagement.
Zearn is used by more than 400 of about 1,100 Arkansas schools and more than 16,000 first- through fifth-grade students, McRae said.
Compared with the baseline of how often it was used at Arkansas schools before the pandemic, use of Zearn dropped about 90% by early April for schools of all income levels, then improved to a 63.4% below the baseline by early May. But that improvement mostly came from schools in middle-income ZIP codes, where the reduction in use was 35.2% compared with the baseline. Schools in low-income ZIP codes still saw a reduction in use of 81.7% from the baseline.
One national survey, conducted by the professional networking application Fishbowl in early April, provided insight as to how the transition from in-person instruction to virtual school affected student attendance in the spring.
About 34% of the 5,659 teachers who answered the survey reported no more than one in four of their students were attending remote classes, while 55% said fewer than half of their students were participating. Most schools had been closed for about a month at that point.
School districts that tried hard to engage with their students and keep track of them during the spring are better off now than those districts that didn't make similar efforts, said Hedy Chang, executive director and president of Attendance Works, a national research and advocacy group focused on addressing chronic absenteeism.
The issue of kids missing from school is owed in part to what covid-19 has done to disrupt families' living arrangements, sending some children to live with friends or relatives in other places, Chang said.
"You may be going to grandma's because you feel that's safer than living in your own home," Chang said. "And covid has had a huge disproportionate impact on low-income communities, communities of color, communities where there are essential workers, and that's connected to that housing instability."
Furthermore, in some families, a teen may be in charge of younger siblings while their parents are at work, thus distracting that teen from their own school responsibilities, she said.
Remote instruction is especially challenging for younger students, whose participation during the spring semester was worse than for older students, according to the North Little Rock School District.
Michele Beasley's young sons are participating but struggling to keep up, she said. Her sons are in fourth and sixth grades at LISA Academy Public Charter Schools, and she wishes parents had an option to pause the school year and resume in-person learning when the worst of the pandemic subsides.
"If I could do that, I would sign up in a heartbeat," she said. "The pressure is just too much. I can't figure out how to manage this and work."
Virtual learning, in its current form, is too challenging to have the same expectations as in-person learning, she said.
Beasley's sons, Eli and Ethan, are still attending every class virtually, seven weeks into the school year. But they won't keep doing so for much longer, Beasley said. Not the way it's going now. Not while her older son is earning a B, two C's and a D in his core courses, when he normally earns all A's and B's.
She's already brainstorming her other options. She could enroll her sons in private school for thousands of dollars. She could enroll them in a virtual academy -- one that has been virtual for years and has, in her mind, a better handle on virtual learning.
Or, without jeopardizing her sons' spots in LISA Academy, she could tell her sons to no longer do the work for their non-core classes. That's the option Beasley is favoring right now. It means her sons would fail some classes, like Spanish and art.
Beasley and her husband work during the day. Eli and Ethan struggle to use all of the required apps. She gets emails all day from teachers and apps telling her one of her sons didn't log in or submit an assignment. She tries to help, and often that means printing off assignments, helping her sons do the work on paper, then sending cellphone pictures of the work to teachers, who then must grade it and manually enter their grades.
She's thought about having her sons just return to the classroom, but even in-person students are required to do all of their assignments using the same software.
"So I'm at the mercy of the software," she said.
A recent meeting with school administrators left her feeling hopeful that students will receive fewer assignments and more time to complete them.
Students in other districts have faced other issues with virtual learning.
In Marion, a district of about 4,000 students across the Mississippi River from Memphis, roughly a third of students lack consistent access to broadband, Superintendent Glen Fenter said. Most of the learning that happened during the spring centered on the distribution and retrieval of paper packets.
"People serving folks with inconsistent internet connectivity were having very difficult times understanding the engagement levels of their students," Fenter said.
"I guess I would say the quality of learning that occurred during that time was certainly not what we would hope it would have been had we had more advance notice, and obviously more resources and better training," he said.
Siloam Springs, in the state's northwest corner, had a relatively good participation rate of somewhere between 90% and 94% during the first couple weeks of remote learning in the spring, Wiggins, the superintendent, said. But that percentage soon began to drop steadily as students realized their grades would not be negatively affected no matter what they did those last two months, he said.
The district did not keep attendance. Official records from Siloam Springs show zero absences recorded for the fourth quarter.
Still, teachers tried to keep everyone engaged. Michele Jackson, who teaches economics at Siloam Springs High School, said she'd often send her students messages just to say she was thinking about them, without mentioning class work.
"Because that wasn't the priority," Jackson said. "There were kids who really struggled. But there were also those who really wanted to learn, and they were willing to do the assignments."
The spring presented a learning curve not only for students, but for teachers as well, she said.
"You didn't want to penalize a student because they didn't have access to the internet," Jackson said.
Charity Miller, a kindergarten teacher at Siloam Springs' Northside Elementary School, said her students all had iPads to take home. She estimated 90% of her students were fully engaged.
"Attendance wasn't a requirement, but I did keep track on my own which students were logging on," Miller said. "We'd make a phone call and say, 'Hey, we haven't seen your student, and what do you need.'"
Jennifer Morrow, director of secondary education for the Bentonville School District, said that out of the district's 5,000 high school students, fewer than 75 had problems engaging in school during the spring shutdown for one reason or another. Administrators who normally handle disciplinary matters during the school day were calling or visiting students at their homes to help solve each family's problem, Morrow said.
Bentonville did its best to keep attendance, basing it on whether a student completed and turned in their work. High school students had a solid 24-hour window in which to do that each day. That flexibility was important, especially for teens caring for younger siblings while their parents were at work, Morrow said.
Still, she said, the district was more concerned about student health than the attendance rate. Awards based on good attendance and punishments based on insufficient attendance were suspended.
The Mansfield School District, a district of 715 students roughly 30 miles south of Fort Smith, had only a half-dozen or so students that were hard to reach during the spring, Superintendent Joe Staton said. The district reached out to those students mainly by phone, he said.
Students counted as having attended for a day if they turned in work that was assigned for that day.
"They had several days to complete it and get it back to us," Staton said. "If there was some student-teacher interaction either through Zoom or through the telephone, that was also considered attendance."
Vicki Collet, an associate professor in curriculum and instruction at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, shared preliminary findings of a study she did with a colleague from North Carolina on the Marshallese experience in Northwest Arkansas during remote learning in the spring.
They did 20 interviews with educators and Marshallese students and families. Most of the study participants were from Springdale. About 15,000 Marshallese live in Northwest Arkansas, according to Melisa Laelan, director of the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese.
Educators reported between 12% and 50% of students did work consistently. This varied by age, location and other demographics. Participation was lowest for seniors and low-income students, Collet said.
But educators were less concerned with academics during that time than they were with the health and well-being of their students. They made phone calls, home visits and communicated through other media to ensure students were safe and had what they needed.
There were positive outcomes from the spring, Collet said. School communities became stronger by pulling together to ensure kids were fed, safe and learning. Schools learned the best ways and times to communicate with many families and strengthened relationships by connecting frequently with those families. And educators came to know Marshallese families and culture in a deeper way, according to Collet.
Many districts across the state report enrollment is down this year from last year.
Springdale, the state's largest district, had 21,880 students as of Oct. 1, which was 284 students fewer than the same date in 2019, a 1.3% drop.
Siloam Springs' enrollment, which until this year had been climbing steadily for well over a decade, was 4,176 on Oct. 1, which was 195 students fewer than a year ago, a 4.5% drop. Kindergarten enrollment this year was about 50 students below usual, Wiggins said.
"I think some of our parents may have just decided to keep their students home another year," he said. "I anticipate some of those will come back to us next year."
He believes another bunch of students that had been with the district last year are being home-schooled, and charter schools may have taken a few more.
Mansfield's enrollment of 715 students as of Oct. 1 is a 5.5% decrease from the same date a year ago. Staton attributed the drop largely to more parents home-schooling their kids.
"They are concerned about covid and they also don't feel like the virtual program we're offering is conducive to the time they have to give," he said.
Marion ordered $650,000 worth of iPads and Chromebooks for students this summer, but as of mid-September, they had not arrived. The district has no idea when those devices will arrive, Fenter said.
Marion's enrollment is about 3,939, which Fenter said was down only about 20 students from last year.
"That's statistically insignificant," Fenter said. "The big issue is the number of students who are still pursuing virtual options who may or may not be appropriately equipped, who may or may not have consistent internet access.
"Those are all things we're continuing to chase."