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South Florida Schools 'Ahead Of The Pack' In Tracking Virtual Attendance. Here's Why That Matters

Javier Alonso, a 7th grader at Linda Lentin K-8 Center School in North Miami, has been learning at home since campuses closed because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Pedro Portal
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

As government leaders weigh plans to reopen amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis, public health experts have stressed their decisions must be guided by data.

Local elected officials, health care workers and journalists alike have been pushing for transparency about rates of COVID-19 infection and death.

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“Everyone is clamoring: ‘We need the health data. We need to know where the virus is, where it is surging.’ That’s the same thing when we think about teaching and learning,” said Jenn Bell-Ellwanger, president and C.E.O. of the Data Quality Campaign, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for the use of data to improve education.

National education policy researchers argue data about at-home virtual learning are crucial to combat the inevitable regression that’s likely to disproportionately affect students who already struggle the most.

As for school districts’ collection of remote learning data, “it’s very uneven across the country right now,” Bell-Ellwanger said. But she and other experts say South Florida school districts are doing it right.

The districts in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties are “ahead of the pack nationally,” said Bree Dusseault, practitioner-in-residence at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a think tank based at the University of Washington.

The group has created a database delving into how school districts and charter school management organizations are handling distance learning. Dusseault stressed the database isn't exhaustive; it's based on publicly available information, such as what districts post on their websites or social media.

Of the 82 districts included in the database, only 19 are tracking attendance. Seven of those are in Florida, including South Florida's three large districts.

Broward and Palm Beach have even made some of their attendance data publicly available online. Miami-Dade has provided the information to WLRN through public records requests.

(Monroe County Public Schools, which is much smaller, is also tracking students' virtual attendance, but it's not included on the organization's database.)

“Attendance data is critical during this moment in time, because it does allow us to see which students schools are reaching and where those gaps are. You've got to be able to see those gaps in order to close them,” Dusseault said. “There's no question that this crisis is exacerbating inequalities that already existed in our education system."

For example, Miami-Dade County Public Schools is finding the  lowest virtual attendance rates at schools with high populations of low-income and immigrant families. In Palm Beach County, the average attendance rate for students with disabilities is 20 percentage points lower than their peers. And in Broward, high school seniors are the least likely to log on.

These data points aren’t points of pride. But when districts have this information, they can use it to try to improve.

If students aren’t logging on, “is it a matter of safety? Is it a matter of access to the internet? You don't know,” said Bell-Ellwanger, from the Data Quality Campaign. “So at least collecting that information on some systematic basis allows you to zero in on communities and homes and to start partnering with families to help understand what’s happening.”

That’s already happening across South Florida, where school districts have identified students who haven’t participated and targeted them with phone calls, emails and text messages. If those attempts fail, staff members go to students’ homes to check on them.

In Miami-Dade County, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said data showing which students have made the least progress or spent the least amount of hours taking classes online will be used to build an enhanced summer school program to help them catch up.

The information will be even more vital when — or if — students return to campuses in the fall, since this spring’s canceled state exams will leave educators “flying blind” on which kids have fallen behind and how far. That’s according to Claus von Zastrow, a principal at the Education Commission of the States, another national nonprofit think tank that’s examining school districts’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Students who are already at a disadvantage will find themselves at an even deeper disadvantage,” von Zastrow said. “It's most likely that those are the students who are not attending or getting engaged by school right now.

"And when it's difficult to track that, those students kind of fall into the shadows," he said. "Those [schools] with the best data will have the best opportunity to respond.”

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.