Kai Sanchez, 14, takes an online Spanish class from one of her teachers at Half Moon Bay High School on April 1 at her home in Half Moon Bay. (Photo by Brian Feulner/San Francisco Chronicle, Polaris, via EdSource)

Taking attendance has acquired new meaning for schools as distance learning becomes the new normal during the pandemic.

Schools are not required to take roll at this time in order to receive state funds based on average daily attendance, said California Department of Education spokesman Scott Roark. But districts are encouraged to monitor student participation and performance in distance learning to see how well it is working.

Moreover, many teachers simply want to stay in touch with their students. Partly that’s to see that they are keeping up with their coursework, but also to make sure they are getting the resources they need and are safe.

How teachers track attendance and engagement takes many forms. Some monitor who uses the online learning platforms. Others make regular contact with their students on a one-on-one basis through calls, emails or virtual office hours.

Many online learning platforms such as Google classroom allow teachers to see who is logging on daily and watching pre-recorded lessons or turning in assignments.

Some districts — such as West Contra Costa Unified and San Diego Unified — have required their teachers to take attendance in some form. But that data is not shared with the state, and students aren’t penalized for not participating. It’s largely up to the teachers to decide what counts as a student being present.

At Mira Vista Elementary School in Richmond — which serves grades K-8 — teachers take attendance in the form of daily “check-ins,” said principal Gabriel Chilcott. Thus far, 80 percent of the school’s students are regularly accessing distance learning, Chilcott said. Teachers are not only making sure that students are participating, but making sure they are doing well.

Brett Lackey, who teaches seventh grade at Mira Vista, does this by having all of his 52 students fill out a daily online form, which only he sees. They usually have what he calls a “silly” question, the answers of which Lackey will share during his office hours or put into a graph to share with the class. Some recent questions include “If animals could talk, which would be the rudest,” “Would you rather start a colony on another planet or be the leader of a small country on another planet or be the leader of a small country on Earth,” or “You have discovered you are living in a giant social experiment. How do you try to let people know about this experiment without being too obvious?”

‘Create a sense of community despite distance learning’

“While these questions seem silly, in some ways they really allow the students to get into discussions and create a sense of community despite distance learning,” Lackey said. “They look forward to seeing the results of the polling at the end of the week to see how their answers compare to the rest of the class.”

Not everyone wants to fill out the daily form, Lackey said, so he counts a student as present if they complete or attempt to complete their daily online assignments instead. Lackey also has daily “office hours” in which students can video chat with him via Zoom. That also counts as a student being present. Lackey has even sent out postcards to the homes of students he still can’t reach.

The school keeps a shared document of which students are accessing the online distance learning materials, Chilcott said. His office is given a list of students who aren’t participating, and reaches out to their parents.

“We call and try to help families,” Chilcott said. “This is a very difficult time, so we are trying to be fluid and come from a place of grace and forgiveness for all members of our community.”

Chris Miraglia, an eighth-grade history teacher at Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School in Santa Ana uses Google Meet to see who is attending his virtual classes, even though he’s not required to take attendance.

“Since I am actually doing enrichment instruction it is important to keep tabs of who is checking in,” Miraglia said via email, referring to instruction that can only enhance a student’s grade, but not lower it.

For students who aren’t attending the virtual classes, Miraglia checks to see if they have turned in assignments. He said about a quarter of his class hasn’t turned in a single assignment since switching to distance learning. He will call those students’ parents, but many of his students have numbers that are no longer in service, he said.

Many teachers’ top concerns right now are that their students have computers, tablets or wifi to access online learning.

Another major issue is whether their students’ basic needs are being met at home.

Maintaining contact with students

For Reyna Guerra, who teaches special education math at Fremont High School in Oakland, her way of taking attendance is maintaining contact with her students. She calls students and parents, makes herself available to students who need help and reaches out to friends of students who aren’t staying in touch. That’s more important to keep track of than whether or not students have completed their weekly math assignments, she said.

“My main thing is are you OK, are you safe, have you eaten today? I’m taking it very slow on the academics, because who can learn in this situation?” Guerra said.

Los Angeles Unified is tracking how many students log in to the various online learning platforms on a daily and weekly basis, which platforms students are using, how long they spend in Zoom lessons and how many assignments are given to students. In April, 98 percent of high school students and 75 percent of elementary school students had accessed online distance learning, spokeswoman Barbara Jones said.

At Long Beach Unified, teachers, administrators and counselors are actively reaching out to families whose students have not accessed the online distance learning materials, picked up assignment packets, checked out Chromebooks or interacted with teachers from home, Deputy Superintendent of Schools Jill Baker said. Students won’t be penalized if they aren’t doing these things, Baker said.

San Diego Unified is tracking how many students are logging onto digital platforms, and will publicly announce its weekly participation rate for the remainder of the year. Ahead of the district formally launching its distance learning plan, the district said it had a 90 percent online attendance rate.

“The district feels it is important that everyone knows this school year still matters,” said San Diego Unified spokeswoman Maureen Magee.

L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner, in a message to school communities last month, said traditionally the district measures student engagement through attendance, if they are behaving appropriately, if they feel a part of the school and academic progress. The district is now challenged with gauging how students are doing while learning at home.

“Educators are still figuring out how to solve this puzzle,” Beutner said. “There are lots of pieces and all will have to fit carefully together in the work to address the unique needs of each student.”

Story originally published by EdSource.