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Taking attendance: Not always easy when Florida schools are online.

It’s a simple part of the daily routine in normal times. But when teachers and students aren’t together, it’s harder to know who’s doing what.
 
Alexandra Angarano, a first-grader at Westgate Elementary, uses a laptop to complete online assignments during the first day of online school this week in Pinellas County. Pinellas officials say they want students to spend a good chunk of each day doing school work, with much of it in front of a screen. Other Florida counties are monitoring attendance differently during the coronavirus crisis, saying they are mostly focused on the work getting done, whenever that happens.
Alexandra Angarano, a first-grader at Westgate Elementary, uses a laptop to complete online assignments during the first day of online school this week in Pinellas County. Pinellas officials say they want students to spend a good chunk of each day doing school work, with much of it in front of a screen. Other Florida counties are monitoring attendance differently during the coronavirus crisis, saying they are mostly focused on the work getting done, whenever that happens. [ Courtesy of Amelia Angarano ]
Published April 4, 2020

When the coronavirus forced schools across Florida to move to distance learning, many parents and students had a basic yet pressing question.

Do children need to report to classes like they always did?

After all, the message was coming through loud and clear that attendance was not optional, and some form of grades would be given. From the first days, some teachers said they expected students to register their presence online at the start of each period.

“Don’t get marked absent!” Orange County’s East River High School warned students in bold red letters on its Facebook page, adding that teachers would be taking roll call daily.

But some parents were quick to note that factors beyond their control could make it impossible to meet stringent attendance demands— like interrupted or absent internet service and not enough computers for everyone in a household. How can two siblings log in to different classes at the same time if they have one device between them, for instance?

Children without technology are not able to log in at all.

The Florida Department of Education, which recommended the schools close their buildings and operate remotely, did not tell districts how to count.

Taking attendance might be beneficial, department spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said, in case an outside entity ever asks for documentation of activities, such as how grant money was spent. The state has already assured districts of full funding through the end of June.

But the “how” of attendance was left to school districts. And they’re taking different approaches.

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Many acknowledge that this new education world does not easily fit into the old structure. As such, they’re using what some Pasco County officials call a “very flexible definition” of attendance.

In Pasco and neighboring Hillsborough County, that translates into taking account weekly of the work that students accomplished. Teachers will review whether the children logged in to review materials, submitted assignments, took part in group discussion boards and other related activities.

The actual time of day they do that work is less a concern.

“Performance is really driving us in Pasco more than attendance,” superintendent Kurt Browning said.

Addison Davis.
Addison Davis. [ Clay County District Schools ]

Hillsborough superintendent Addison Davis shared that perspective. He, too, argued that signing in every morning is not as critical as participating when possible and completing the coursework.

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“For me, that’s enough and sufficient to count them for that week,” said Davis, who noted that some children also would be submitting paperwork that does not lend itself to attendance in the same way.

“Home-based learning is inherently less structured and allows for more independent learning,” noted Sonya Duke-Bolden, a spokeswoman for Duval County schools, which also has many students without online access who are working on packets rather than computers. “So while teachers are available between 8 a.m.–2:50 p.m. to engage with students and provide guided lessons, there is no expectation that students are sitting in front of a computer non-stop for seven hours.”

Taking into account family dynamics is critical, added Glenda Sheffield, chief academic officer for Palm Beach County schools. She called attendance taking “fluid” in her district.

“Everyone’s lifestyle has changed in a split second,” said Sheffield, who included teachers in that group.

“As we’re working through this," she said, "there are just options, so many different opportunities and approaches. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But we are certainly gathering the feedback.”

Pinellas County is taking one of the more aggressive approaches to the issue. After starting with a relaxed view of attendance, spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas said, the schools plan to become more insistent that children sign on regularly for classes.

Some teachers will have daily requirements and live lessons, while others will not, she said. All will have the ability to change attendance grades if students do things later, she added, and grades will depend on performance not attendance.

But the Pinellas expectation is that students will spend a good chunk of each day doing school work, with much of it in front of a screen.

“Students typically will spend between five and seven hours on their schoolwork each day, just as they would in a regular school setting,” Mascareñas said.

Whatever the formal attendance requirements, teachers are watching each student’s time in the system. They want to ensure no student falls behind without someone noticing and reaching out.

In Bay County, which dealt with similar issues after Hurricane Michael tore up the community, teachers make contact after three days without hearing from a student.

“The storm forced us all to be more flexible, more patient and to realize that school can occur differently and still be valid and valuable,” said Bay communications director Sharon Michalik.

Other counties don’t wait as long to call homes. The point is to avoid massive learning losses or widening gaps, while also keeping things “as normal as we can,” Pasco superintendent Browning told the Florida Board of Education at its Tuesday meeting

“We still have an obligation to monitor kids and make sure our students are getting the support they need,” said Browning, who is also president of the state superintendents association.

Attendance is just a mark on a page, said JoAnne Glenn, principal of Pasco’s eSchool, one of the state’s largest virtual education programs.

Even if a student gets an absent mark, she said in a video to parents and students, “you can still complete the work for credit. It still counts.”

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