PROVIDENCE – When Governor Gina Raimondo announced in April that the coronavirus would keep classrooms closed for the rest of the school year, she said the difficult decision was made easier by the strong student attendance rates that districts across the state were showing during distance learning.
Raimondo praised students, teachers, and families for their resilience during an unprecedented crisis, and boasted that Rhode Island students were participating in distance learning at higher rates than their peers in other states.
“By every measure, engagement is very high,” Raimondo said during her daily press conference.
However, attendance numbers in Providence, the state’s largest school district, tell a far different story.
Between March 23 and May 26, a third of the district’s 24,000 students were considered chronically absent, according to attendance data from the Providence Public School Department. A student is labeled chronically absent when they miss at least 10 percent of the days when they were supposed to be in school.
At the high school level, the chronic absenteeism rate was 40 percent, and three schools – E-Cubed Academy, Hope High School, and Evolutions High School – had chronic absenteeism rates above 50 percent. The district has since announced that it would close Evolutions.
“We have engaged a whole new group of students who really like [distance learning,]” said Harrison Peters, the district’s new superintendent. “But we’ve also disenfranchised a group of students that just don’t like it.”
Peters and state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green are set to unveil their long-awaited turnaround plan for Providence schools on Tuesday. The state formally took control of Providence schools in November after a report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University detailed widespread dysfunction, poor test scores, and low morale among students and teachers.
While Peters and Infante-Green have been tight-lipped about their plans for the district, Peters said improving attendance has to be a top priority.
“We have to do a better job of outreach, and we have to be more proactive,” Peters said, suggesting that one positive outcome from distance learning is that the district has engaged more parents than ever before.
Providence has struggled with poor attendance rates for more than a decade, and each year officials vow to do better. Over the years, they’ve tried everything from offering incentives for students who come to school – the rapper Kendrick Lamar performed at Mount Pleasant High in 2013 after students won an attendance contest – to buying software so they can text parents when their child is absent.
During distance learning, attendance did increase – slightly.
During the 2018-19 school year, about 37 percent of students were considered chronically absent, and more than half of the high school students missed at least 10 percent of the school year. For distance learning between March and May, the district-wide absenteeism rate was 33.6 percent.
While high school students were most likely to miss school during distance learning, 32.5 percent of Providence middle school students were chronically absent, and 29.7 percent of elementary school students were chronically absent. The district reported that more than 1,700 students were absent every other day, on average.
“You can’t get much worse than that,” said Robin Lake, the director of the Washington-based Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonprofit think tank.
Lake said Providence’s absenteeism rate during distance learning “feels like more of a reflection of what was happening before COVID-19.” She said the district suffers from a “mass disaffection” problem, a point that was highlighted in the Johns Hopkins University report last year.
The results of a survey of Providence students back up Lake’s point.
In a survey of more than 9,000 Providence middle school and high school students this school year, only 35 percent said that being absent two days a month would impact their chance at graduating from high school. When asked how useful they believe school will be to them in the future, 39 percent said they believe it would not at all useful, slightly useful, or somewhat useful.
“Maybe they’re saying something with their absenteeism,” Lake said.
The city’s high poverty rate – more than 80 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch – presented a unique problem for this district during distance learning. Although the district had already provided devices like tablets or Chrome Books to nearly every student before the coronavirus, officials were unsure how many families lacked access to the internet.
But Raimondo worked with the country’s largest cellular providers to provide free Wi-Fi hotspots for the rest of the school year. Peters said there were about 100 students between kindergarten and high school with whom the district had no contact at all during distance learning.
“What absence means is they’re not bothering to check the box,” Lake said.
With students scheduled to return to school Aug. 31, Peters said, “we have make sure we are hooking kids and keeping them engaged.”
And while he understands that the coronavirus took its toll on the entire state – especially in some Providence neighborhoods – he wants families to know that the virus shouldn’t be used as an excuse for poor performance in school.
“There’s not going to be a COVID pass,” Peters said.