Online School Has Started in Oakland, But Will Students Show Up?

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During the 2018-2019 school year, about 1 in 3 Oakland Unified students was chronically absent — defined as missing 18 days of school or more. District officials believe, based on anecdotal evidence, that far fewer kids were present during last spring semester's distance learning. (iStock/Bigpra)

Oakland students are back in virtual classrooms this week, where school officials will be tracking their attendance for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic forced learning online this spring. But there are still questions about how to ensure kids show up — and what happens if they don't.

It’s not clear how many Oakland students were unaccounted for during spring distance learning, because districts weren’t required to report attendance under the circumstances. Before the pandemic, in 2018-2019, about 1 in 3 Oakland Unified School District students was chronically absent — defined as missing 18 days of school or more — and district officials say anecdotally they know far fewer kids were present during distance learning.

For teachers like Madison Park Academy’s Marisa Villegas, the stakes weighed heavily. Getting students to show up regularly is critical, and poor attendance increases the chances a child will struggle academically and be held back. It’s a leading indicator a student will go on to drop out of high school.

Still, Villegas said getting her high school students to attend last spring was the biggest challenge in a semester rife with them. She had 156 students across seven sections and said only a quarter of each class showed up regularly.

Usually, she said, students weren’t showing up because they couldn’t. Some didn’t have internet or laptops, or multiple kids in a home were sharing one computer. Often her students were taking care of younger siblings, or they had to pick up jobs to help support their families.


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“I would make phone calls, I would email, I would text. I would do my best to get a hold of parents, aunts, grandparents, you name it,” Villegas said.

When she couldn’t reach anyone, she turned to Community School Manager Francisco Alvarado for help. Though Alvarado and other school outreach workers were providing a vital source of support for families — answering questions, providing food, securing social services — those connections did not translate into success getting kids to participate in distance learning.

“Our attendance team, we would meet and say, ‘What do we do here? Half of our school is not in class,’ ” Alvarado said.

They reminded parents that school was still mandatory, handed out Chromebooks, offered to help get families online, and printed out paper packets of school work.

“All these things we're trying and it just wasn't landing,” said Alvarado.

In addition to keeping tabs on who’s participating every day, districts will now be required to come up with a plan to support students who are absent more than three days in a week.

“Is it going to be perfect when we return? Absolutely not,” said Misha Karigaca, who’s in charge of attendance for OUSD. “Will it be better? Yes.”

Beyond bending the student information computer system to the newly mandated measures of attendance, Karigaca said, the district’s role is to provide clear guidelines on meeting new legal requirements while allowing individual schools some freedom in developing plans.

School attendance teams, like Alvarado’s, will be tasked with monitoring weekly attendance data and pairing students with needed interventions and support. One option, Karigaca said, is to assign mentors.

“Somebody who's going be that extra special liaison, that's going to be a conduit between the school and the family,” he said.

“The good news is we don't have to reinvent everything, even in a global pandemic,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit focused on reducing chronic absences.

One key thing schools can do is use past data on chronic absenteeism proactively.

“The idea is that we should be thinking about prevention,” Chang said. “We already have some information from last year about who needs extra support and we should start the year off with a deeper plan so those students get extra engagement, extra support.”

Attendance Works is also suggesting additional metrics that districts can track to help inform efforts to improve attendance during distance learning, including internet access.

But what happens if these efforts to monitor and intervene don’t work? What if outreach workers run into the same issues Alvarado faced in the spring? Under normal circumstances, truancy laws eventually kick in, initiating a formal process meant to hold parents accountable. But distance learning has upended that system.

“The law doesn't seem to apply in the same way as when children aren’t physically in a classroom,” said Teresa Drenick, who runs the truancy and attendance program for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, noting there are some legal gray areas she hopes to see clarified in the coming months.

The key issue, she said, is that under the new law governing distance learning, there doesn’t appear to be a way to differentiate between excused and unexcused absences, and truancy law is only triggered by unexcused absences.

While it’s rare for families to end up in her office — she works with about 100 each year — other parts of the truancy process touch many more. One of the earliest steps in the process is often a hearing with a School Attendance Review Team where families and administrators try to work out a plan to address root causes of truancy. When that's not enough, cases get referred to a district's School Attendance Review Board for more intensive intervention. In Oakland, Karigaca said, around 200 cases go to the board each year. Usually that’s enough to improve attendance, but not always.

"My experience has been that there are certain families and certain students that for one reason or another — and oftentimes it’s due to extreme hardships — they aren't able to turn it around," Drenick said. That's when cases end up on her desk.

Though truancy can lead to fines, Drenick and experts like Chang say a punitive approach to discipline isn’t necessarily effective. What works best is addressing the underlying family issues that keep kids out of school. That’s what Alameda County’s truancy system is geared toward — offering support with things like transportation, health care and counseling.

Drenick said she hopes that without the court's intervention, school districts can bring the needed services to bear. And she hopes to continue to play a role. “I hope that we, as DAs, can reimagine how we can support our local school districts to make sure that kids are getting what they need,” she said.

In the absence of a formal truancy process during distance learning, Karigaca said Oakland Unified will still try to follow its general framework, even if it doesn’t have the force of law. Whether the district can successfully do that — by convening families, administrators and social service providers for hearings remotely — remains to be seen.

Chang sees silver linings in all of this. For her, the fact that the new law requires schools to intervene when students are missing school for any reason, whether the absences are excused or unexcused, is good news. “That's actually an improvement,” she said. “It’s really critical.”

A few days before school started, Madison Park Academy's Alvarado was busy trying to lay the groundwork to prevent absenteeism. He was preparing to host a Facebook Live to answer parents’ questions and making video tutorials to help students create study areas at home.

Ultimately, he and Villegas said, when it comes to attendance, the biggest challenge of all may be proving to students that it’s worth showing up and that teachers will be delivering a compelling educational experience online.


“I'm excited and I am nervous and terrified all at once,” Villegas said of the new school year. “But I have to have faith that it's going to go well, and that we're going to be with our students and we're going to teach and they're going to learn.”