More Than a Checkbox: School Districts Face Attendance Issues With COVID

By Samantha Cleaver

The Kentucky Department of Education released its plan last month to monitor attendance for this school year.

Instead of taking daily attendance in class, Kentucky districts will record student participation in the learning management system Infinite Campus.

As districts across the country announced plans for the 2020-2021 school year amid COVID-19, many — including large districts like Los Angeles and Charlotte, N.C. — plan to start the year with virtual instruction.

This poses a challenge for how to track attendance.

Kentucky, with its July 20 announcement, was among the first to specify how they would collect attendance data.

They also were one of the first to use information collected through a learning management system (LMS) as a proxy for attendance, said Amelia Vance, director of youth and education privacy with the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) in Washington.

For schools, attendance is more than a checkbox.

“We know that attendance matters,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit in San Francisco, told Digital Privacy News.

In a typical year, attendance data is used for state and federal accountability and for funding decisions. It is also an early warning indicator for students whose chronic absenteeism becomes a concern.

“If students aren’t coming to school, they’re not learning.”

Abby Cohen, Data Quality Campaign, Washington.

“If students aren’t coming to school, they’re not learning,” said Abby Cohen, associate director of policy and research with the Data Quality Campaign (DQC), a nonpartisan policy and advocacy organization in Washington.

Attendance, Cohen said, is an indicator that states should be prioritizing.

Online Instruction

This coming year, schools that are providing online instruction plan to use a variety of indicators, from Zoom check-ins to LMS log-ins, as proxies for in-person attendance.

“The way instruction is being delivered is shifting,” Cohen told Digital Privacy News. “Do we have the system to reflect the reality of what’s going on? I’m not sure that has happened.”

As school resumes, districts are challenged with everything from defining “attendance” to deciding how to capture and use such data to extract critical information.

Attendance procedures, for the most part, have yet to be defined.

“Educational decisions as simple as attendance will affect the rest of these students’ lives,” said FPF’s Vance, “and we are still in the middle of a pandemic.

“I worry about us going back to the accountability data-driven system, where people who need to report data no longer have a clear way to do so — and haven’t been trained in some of the failings of this data.”

‘Present’ When Online?

In March, when schools switched abruptly to online learning, attendance-taking changed dramatically.

In a spring survey of 82 school districts and 18 charter-management organizations nationwide, the Center for Reinventing Public Education found that only half of districts expected teachers to track student attendance.

“We know that attendance matters.”

Hedy Chang, Attendance Works, San Francisco.

Part of the reason this happened is that schools, said Chang of Attendance Works, “didn’t know how long this would last — but, then, there were no agreements around what constitutes showing up.” 

So, what first must happen is redefining what it means for a student to be in school.

“How long do you have to be in school to get credit for that day?” DQC’s Cohen posed to Digital Privacy News. “That process of defining attendance needs to be gone through again.”

The Kentucky’s Education Department, for instance, defines daily school participation as “the measure of the interactions between teachers and students,” which may vary based on what a student is doing and whether the activity is in person or online.

Once “attendance” is defined, the next question is how to collect it, experts said.

Capturing Data

Typically, when students physically arrive, schools collect attendance data using student-information systems. In a synchronous online lesson, teachers could still tally the students who log in and enter it into the system.

However, when students are working on asynchronous lessons, attendance is more difficult to manage.

“We predicted,” said FPF’s Vance, “that teachers were going to turn to something that already exists, learning analytics.”

These analytics, she explained, are data points that can be used as proxies for how students are paying attention — such as whether a student logged into a platform, how long they’ve had a window or page open, or how long an assignment takes to complete.

This information, Vance told Digital Privacy News, “is not necessarily going to be the measure of attendance that schools want it to be.”

The LMS Factor

For example, logging into an LMS — like Infinity Classroom, Canvas or Schoology — collects data that could be used as a proxy for attendance.

However, Vance cautioned, “some LMS, you don’t log into. And, looking at a list of students that have logged in is a poor proxy.”

“Educational decisions as simple as attendance will affect the rest of these students’ lives.”

Amelia Vance, Future of Privacy Forum, Washington.

Officials at the Kentucky Department of Education and Infinity Classroom did not respond to requests for comment from Digital Privacy News.

Certain indicators would not work for other reasons, experts said.

If a child is using a school-issued computer, for instance, they may never officially log in to an LMS. If a child’s computer has a blocker for a particular tracker, Vance said, that child’s data also would not be included.

Right now, more questions abound than answers about how schools will use information gleaned from student computers to monitor attendance, experts told Digital Privacy News.

Finally, collecting data must be balanced with teacher workloads.

“We have to worry about (teacher burden),” Attendance Works’ Chang said, “because we are asking more of teachers than ever before.”

Vance added that teachers must be trained in how attendance data would be collected. “It’s a massive weight on teachers.”

Samantha Cleaver is an education writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

How Attendance Data Is Used

In a typical school year, aggregate attendance data provides an accountability measure and quality indicator.

But this year because of COVID-19, states still are deciding if attendance data will be used to monitor accountability.

“We need to reinstate attendance-taking,” said Hedy Chang of Attendance Works, though it should not be connected to accountability.

Attendance data also helps states allocate school funding.

“We are advocating to hold schools harmless,” Chang told Digital Privacy News, “and not to use attendance for funding right now.”

At the individual level, attendance data shows whether a child is ready to move to the next grade — and serves as an early warning sign.

This year, the information also will give insight into which students may need additional support during COVID.

Attendance data, to that end, may be shared with partner organizations, including public-health entities.

Right now, it remains unclear if schools will use attendance data to hold individual students accountable. Or, how they will share information.

Teachers and parents, said Abby Cohen of the Data Quality Campaign, should have a clear understanding of what data is being collected and how it’s shared.

In particular, said Amelia Vance of the Future of Privacy Forum, if there are consequences because a child has not been “in class,” parents need to know how a decision was made.

“All schools should give teachers information about the digital indicators that will be used to make decisions,” Vance said, “so that none of them are disadvantaged.”

— Samantha Cleaver