Daily attendance at Berkeley Unified rose 10% during distance learning. Students logged into Zoom classes during the pandemic more consistently than they showed up for in-person classes the previous year. 

Attendance rose from 88% to 96% throughout the district, and students from all demographic categories were counted present for more days. At Berkeley High, the number of chronically absent students, or students who were absent for more than 30 periods, fell by more than half. In fall 2019, 454 students were chronically absent. This fall, that number dropped to 194 students.

Improved attendance data could be a sign that educators’ attempts to reach students have paid off. But many challenges facing students and families are not reflected in the data. With significantly less class time, connectivity issues, some students marked present despite not attending Zoom classes and others giving up on school entirely, the district still has plenty to do to support students next year. 

Anecdotally, teachers report that their classroom attendance has improved. “We have amazing attendance. Every day, just about everybody comes to my class,” said Mary Patterson, who teaches 6th and 8th grade history in Longfellow Middle School’s dual language immersion program.  

“Overall, period by period, there’ll be fewer random absences of students,” said Alex Day, a social studies teacher at Berkeley High. 

Educators have a few explanations for why attendance has risen, ranging from increased outreach efforts to the way attendance is tracked. 

Berkeleyside is using data analysis to shed light on what’s happening in Berkeley schools. Read about changes to student grades and enrollment.

Throughout the year, teachers have spent hours calling and texting students’ families. Staff at the Office of Family Engagement and Equity, Bridge, and RISE have doubled down on efforts to ensure that students make it to class. And a team that supports student attendance at the high school was able to hold more than 100 intervention meetings over Zoom this fall, according to Aman Watson, Berkeley High’s dean of attendance.

At least at the high school, Day thinks increased attendance might have something to do with the lack of social alternatives: A solo hour at home is not as enticing as an afternoon in downtown Berkeley with friends. And there’s less instructional time in general, with classes taking place during the morning hours.

Another explanation has to do with how attendance is calculated. This year, in response to the challenges facing students and families, the state of California lowered the bar for what a student needs to do to qualify as “present.” The change means that a student doesn’t need to log on to Zoom to be counted as present. As long as students complete the classwork, their teacher can mark them “asynchronously present.” Watson said she believes the difference likely accounts for the rising attendance numbers.

Missing students aren’t captured in attendance data

At the same time, the attendance data does not capture the experience of a small number of students who have gone missing from classes altogether, who may be struggling with mental health or lacking motivation, or become family caretakers or breadwinners.

When the pandemic hit, Ibrahim Humran, a senior, started working at his parents’ convenience store up to 30 hours a week to make ends meet. He would try logging into Zoom from his phone, but the connection was sometimes spotty. 

“This year, for me at least, was very hard because I wasn’t just doing school. I was also working,” Humran said. “I couldn’t join the class because sometimes the service over there is bad. It was hard to keep up with the classwork.” Still, Humran managed to juggle both sets of responsibilities and will graduate from Berkeley High this weekend.

At Longfellow, attendance rates are comparable with a typical year, but some students did not engage with their classes at all, said Paco Furlan, principal of Longfellow Middle School, which has a larger share of low-income students compared with other district middle schools. 

In November, 10% of students at Longfellow were not logging onto Zoom at all. By January, that number had dropped to 5%, about 25 students who were “unreachable,” according to notes that Longfellow PTA secretary Lou Pearson took at a January 21 meeting. 

Furlan said the reasons for missing students range from faulty internet service to lack of supervision at home with parents working out of the house, adding that bringing back pods of students in person improved attendance.

Pearson’s son, an eighth grader at Longfellow, was one the students who did not attend classes for the better part of the year, falling into what she described as a “deep depression.”

“It’s just been the hardest thing ever. I just watched him falling deeper into this place and really had few options,” Pearson said. She took him to see psychologists and psychiatrists, and the school reached out often, but nothing worked. 

Early in the school year, Pearson’s son started turning off his camera during class. Once he realized he could get away with it, he stopped paying attention and then doing his assignments. In late November, he stopped showing up altogether. 

In a typical year, students who miss just three periods would receive a truancy letter. The district works to get the student back in class, but if repeated attempts are unsuccessful, the school district can get a probation officer involved. In 2019-20, three students ended up with probationary hearings for missing school, according to Watson. Watson added she tries to avoid getting students ensnared in the criminal justice system.

This year, students aren’t receiving truancy letters and probation officers aren’t involved, based on a temporary change to California law.

“Since November, he has not done any work at all. The only thing we’ve been able to do is get the counselors to come here once a week for 45 minutes and meet him in our yard,” Pearson said. 

Pearson’s son will move on to ninth grade at Berkeley High next year, attending special classes with fewer students and more support, which her son doesn’t want to do. “At this point, he needs extra help. He’s basically going to go into ninth grade a year behind his peers.” 

When attendance is not a proxy for learning

Even for students who have been attending Zoom classes religiously, it can be a struggle to learn. Poor internet connection has plagued their Zoom experience all year, severely hindering their education. 

“Does attendance mean that a kid tried or you got the information that a kid tried? Some kids don’t necessarily have the ability to be present,” said Adrianna Beti, director of RISE. Beti described frustrating experiences when a student got kicked out of Zoom due to poor connection 10 times, but she never stopped trying to log on. “I would have given up myself,” said Beti, praising the student’s persistence. 

Some students have found it easier to focus online with fewer distractions from classmates, while many have found it difficult to pay attention, giving in to multi-tasking. “It’s so hard to focus,” said Isabella Ingersoll, a senior who reported doing other tasks like making breakfast or getting ready for the day during Zoom. 

Ultimately, attendance is meant to be a proxy for learning. And though students are logging on more, few believe that students have learned more this year.

“The only point here is, are we educating our youth to be able to have good lives and learn the things that they want to learn about the world to make it a better place?” Watson asked. And for some students, the pandemic exacerbated the challenges they face. 

“I think the district is predicting and we are seeing that there’s going to be learning loss. We’re going to have to figure out how to make up for next year.”

Featured photo credit: Pete Rosos 

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...