One of the most critical data points for anyone running a school, much less the nation’s largest school system, is the number of students showing up each day. And this year COVID-19 has made it extremely difficult for New York City public school administrators to track daily attendance in a reliable way.

The numbers submitted to date show that attendance is down several points across the system compared to the pre-pandemic average. That has educators scrambling to account for their students and seeking creative ways to get them to attend class, whether that’s in person or online. To them, it’s a question of fighting back learning loss and providing a lifeline to children who may be in crisis.

“Attendance is a symptom of something,” said principal Kyle Brillante, head of The Highbridge Green School in the Bronx. “That’s why, like doctors, we have to diagnose it. We have to figure out what the root cause is. Is it technology? Is it mental health stuff? Is it something else that’s going on at home?” 

Attendance is a key predictor of student achievement. Studies show students who miss class are far less likely to graduate from high school. Meanwhile, the pandemic has exacerbated inequities in absenteeism: Preliminary data from Connecticut and California have shown that Black and Latino students, poor students, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, and homeless students have had substantially lower attendance rates than white or more affluent peers. 

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The New York City Department of Education says it has tightened attendance rules since the spring, when schools were only required to tally daily “interactions.” Now officials said students must be present for in-person school, log-in for synchronous instruction, and complete any asynchronous assignments that are due. But current policy still counts a student as present for the day if they show up for one class, participate in one video, or hand in one assignment. 

Pre-pandemic, the odds were good that a student marked present in the morning would stay in the building and show up for the other classes as well. Now, administrators said, period-level attendance is erratic. 

“Attendance is supposed to be binary,” said Tom Liam Lynch, education policy director at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. “Either you’re here or you’re not. If your schooling model is online, you should be able to be even more precise. But because there’s a complete variety of what remote learning is it’s hard to know.” 

Pre-pandemic, the five-year average attendance rate in New York City’s public schools was 91.6%. In April, right after schools went remote, it dropped to 85.9%. This fall, it was 88.6%, though that number slipped a little after schools shut down in November. 

Even at The Highbridge Green School, where pre-pandemic attendance rates are generally higher than the city’s average, getting students to come to class has become an all-hands-on-deck affair. Administrators run through lists of absent students every day and call their parents; they make home visits if necessary. Some teachers text students every morning with reminders to log on. 

For example, all semester Brillante and his team have been keeping a close eye on Fanta Sangare. Sangare is in eighth grade. She gets good grades, was elected to student government last year, plays basketball and volleyball. But since quarantine last spring, her attendance has been inconsistent. By the time in-person learning started in October, she had already missed so many remote classes that her principal was pleading with her over the phone to come in. 

Fanta Sangare sits at a desk in a classroom; she is wearing a hooded sweatshirt and wears a medical masks, with her hands under her chin.

Fanta Sangare is an eighth grader at The Highbridge Green School in the Bronx. She says she’s more motivated to come to class when she’s attending school in-person.

Fanta Sangare is an eighth grader at The Highbridge Green School in the Bronx. She says she’s more motivated to come to class when she’s attending school in-person.
Jessica Gould / WNYC

Sangare admitted it’s hard to focus on schoolwork at home, because of the stress of the virus, and because she gets distracted. “We have other things to worry about,” she said. “There’s people dying. It’s the pandemic. The election.” Like many students, she said her sleep schedule has been off -- she’s up until 3 or 4 in the morning and often sleeps through her remote classes. When she comes to school in person, “I feel more motivated,” she said. 

Hedy Chang, the director of Attendance Works, a national group that tracks and promotes student attendance, said the coronavirus has made the straightforward task of taking attendance much more complex. “What happens if they don't show up virtually, but they do submit an assignment, is that showing up? Is it logging into a system? How long do you have to log in?” 

Chang said it’s important not to penalize students for absences, particularly since so many are juggling their own stress, technical obstacles, responsibilities for siblings, and jobs. In New York City, parents have said they’ve been contacted by the Administration for Children’s Services because their kids didn’t log on. Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has said child protective services should not be involved when students can’t participate online because of problems with technology.  

The city’s education department said it’s taking steps to support schools and improve attendance, troubleshooting around technology access, improving data collection, pairing students with special mentors and deploying central staff known as “attendance teachers” to investigate chronic absenteeism. 

At Highbridge, Sangare disappeared for a week after buildings closed in November. Now she’s logging on again. “I’m dependent on school to get my work done because school is more of a working place,” she said, compared to home which feels like a place to relax.  

Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he’s aiming to reopen middle schools in January, and high schools after that.