Students are showing up to remote classes, but tech problems are still prominent

New Hampshire educators say for the kids who don’t show up to class, it’s usually a technology or connectivity issue

By Jordyn Haime via the Granite State News Collaborative

New Hampshire schools that have so far been partially or fully remote this year say class attendance has been high, almost on par with or even better than in-person attendance numbers this time last year.

In Dover, which opted for full remote learning while phasing in certain groups, district-wide attendance is at 95 percent, down only one percent since last year, according to superintendent of schools William Harbron.

“My personal attendance has been pretty darn good. I can’t say why but looking at my attendance last year and trying to compare, I would say maybe it’s a little bit better,” said Lisa Dillingham, a middle school science teacher and president of the Dover teachers’ union.

During the summer break, teachers have been focusing on how to best keep students engaged in a full day of school in a digital environment. Last spring, with little time to prepare digital learning plans, schools had a mix of synchronous and asynchronous learning. This year, many educators say the switch to more live, fact-to-face learning time is a major factor to getting better attendance.

Megan Tuttle, president of the National Education Association of New Hampshire, the state’s largest teacher’s union, says in-person classes across the state are more full, but even when kids skip school to stay home sick, they’re logging into their remote classrooms.

“Actually they’re really not having too many problems with remote attendance,” Tuttle said. “Parents and students seem to be following protocol.”

In Nashua, where the district is starting the year full remote but plans to shift to hybrid learning, secondary education teacher Gary Hoffman said attendance at his grade level has been higher than in person. The elementary level had a bit of a slower start.

“I’m seeing about 75 to 80 percent of my students every day,” said Deb Howes, Title I teacher at Amherst Street Elementary School. “We’re getting decent attendance. It didn’t start off this good, but it’s getting better every week through hard work on both the ends of the schools and the families.”

As a Title I teacher, Howes doesn’t have her own classroom, but works with students who need additional help. She said it was difficult for them to get into the routine of attending sessions because it’s an additional obligation to regular class time, but things have picked up since the beginning of the year as teachers share strategies that have worked in their own classrooms. Using programs and apps like Jamboards on Google Classroom – where teachers and students can draw on a digital whiteboard – have helped keep students’ attention.

“I have first graders that have a very short attention span. So if I’m their fourth zoom of the day….I have to change activities very quickly. We do very short things and change to a different activity very quickly because they’ve Zoomed three different times already that day,” Howes said.

It’s a big improvement from last year, after schools across the country were forced to go remote in a matter of days. In a national survey of teachers in April, a majority said that less than half of their students are attending remote classes. Only 17 percent said they were getting more than 75 percent attendance.

Tuttle says the improvement in attendance and engagement is probably due to what educators learned in the spring: attendance policies changed to allow more flexibility for students who may have struggled to learn from home.

In Franklin, the school district decided against putting pressure on teachers to come up with new attendance rules, rather marking all students present for the whole time. In districts like these, with high dropout rates, counselors and social workers played a crucial role in checking in on students who weren’t showing up.

This fall, teachers are trying to make it clear that although they’re at home and in their own space, students are still attending class and are expected to show up and participate.

“It’s actually more of a school day. There’s classes, there’s lunch breaks, things like that,”  said Tuttle. “The piece we are following more this year is that attendance piece. They are taking attendance, whereas last year in crisis mode it was like, okay we’ll take it, we won’t take it. I think having that accountability is why we’re not hearing as much about it.”

Dillingham said in the spring, her remote classes started out with strong attendance, but dwindled as the year went on. In a Dover district-wide survey, students and parents said they wanted more interaction with peers and teachers and more synchronous group instruction with smaller groups rather than larger ones.

Educators in Dover focused on having more live class time with students while also trying to reduce their screen time as much as possible, and students have responded positively to the adjustment.

“I do think that is a factor because they’re able to ask questions of their teachers and they’re not just trying to figure it out on their own and sending emails back and forth,” Dillingham said.

Of course, attendance hasn’t been perfect this year. In June, Gov. Chris Sununu announced a $50 million investment into getting broadband services to rural communities that needed it after many students had trouble connecting to classes. Sununu’s plan to expand broadband across the state has been criticized as overly ambitious, as the federal funds must be spent by Dec. 15 or else won’t be reimbursed.

Especially for the schools that are still virtual this year, technological inequities are still prominent. Educators say for the kids who don’t show up to class, it’s usually a technology or connectivity issue, which becomes a major problem when technology is so crucial to keeping in touch with students.

Dover is one district in the state that still does not have a laptop for every student. And because live instruction is now a go-to for many teachers, Zoom rooms are becoming overloaded and some students and teachers are being kicked off during class.

“I just got kicked off last week, and all 3 kids at the same time came out of their rooms and were like, um, we can’t get on the internet anymore,” said Tuttle.

“There have been a couple times this week where kids have continually logged out and log on, or get booted off and have to log back on,” Dillingham said. “Some of our teachers’ technology is so ancient. Some of the things that we’ve been trying to do, especially with Zoom, it takes up a lot of bandwidth and if you don’t have a computer that can handle it it causes problems.”

According to Howes, the local United Way was able to provide internet hotspots to students who needed them in the spring and is continuing to do so for the community this year. Tuttle said some schools are giving kids without access to technology or the internet the option to come into school during the day. Other schools are phasing in certain populations in small groups, particularly those who would most benefit from learning in person, like ESL students and students with IEPs.

Overall, educators say although there are still challenges, this school year has been a big improvement from the spring, when everyone was learning how to teach virtually as they went. Many schools related their attendance policies and assessment and schoolwork expectations. But now that there’s more knowledge about the virus and how to stay safe, teachers are adjusting to the environment easier.

“There are still issues with remote versus hybrid, and it’s never easy, but I think overall listening to other states, I think that we actually are doing a good job,” Tuttle said.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 

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