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Nearly a quarter of Boston public high school students not logging into classes daily as course failure rates rise

Michaela, 9, participates in remote learning at the Boys and Girls Club in Dorchester in October.
Michaela, 9, participates in remote learning at the Boys and Girls Club in Dorchester in October.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Nearly a quarter of Boston public high school students did not log into classes on any given day this fall as schools remain closed and course failure rates rise, according to school data released Saturday that paints a worrisome picture of academic disengagement.

Among students in grades 6-12, failure rates for the first academic quarter, which concluded last month, jumped to 18 percent in English, from 12.4 percent the previous year. Increases in failure rates in other subjects were similar.

Black and Latino students experienced the biggest increases.

School officials unveiled the data as part of a new pandemic dashboard to track a host of student performance measures during the public health crisis, which has raised concerns about educational inequality widening as nearly all students are learning at home, where access to technology, parental support, and other resources varies widely.

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The data also include the first concrete insight into the pandemic’s effects on last spring’s high school graduates: Just 53 percent of them enrolled in college this fall, down sharply from the previous year.

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said the data reflect a variety of issues students are confronting at home on a daily basis, from feelings of isolation and deteriorating mental health and sometimes the need to help with household finances and chores.

“We will continue to watch and intervene with students and do everything we can to make sure they get what they need,” Cassellius said in an interview Saturday, calling it a moral imperative.

The data, presented at a six-hour School Committee meeting Saturday, provide the most comprehensive window yet this fall into remote learning in the state’s largest school system as traditional classrooms remain closed to nearly all of the system’s 51,000 students. Overall, about 86 percent of students districtwide in kindergarten through grade 12 are going online each day for learning.

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But exam schools, such as Boston Latin Academy and the John D. O’Bryant, both had daily online participation rates below 80 percent as well as traditional high schools such as Brighton High, Excel, and Charlestown High.

More than 16,000 students are enrolled in the city’s approximately three dozen high schools, while almost 4,000 students each day are not clicking into classes or getting their assignments. The data captures only those students who use their school-issued e-mail accounts to log into one of the district’s learning and communication platforms, which includes Gmail, Google Classroom, Google Meet, Google Drive, and Clever.

School officials contend that the online activity does not reflect all the learning taking place, noting that many are studying offline via hands-on projects, particularly in the arts and sciences. When factoring in those activities, school officials say the system’s overall daily attendance rate for all students is 89.9 percent — 3 percentage points lower than last school year before the pandemic shutdown classrooms.

And they stressed that student engagement is far more robust this fall than it was in the spring, when only 51 percent of students logged in daily, while the daily attendance rate, including offline activity, was 83 percent.

Amrita Dani, who teaches humanities and English as a second language at Boston Adult Technical Academy in Bay Village, said her students — many of whom are recent immigrants between 18 and 22 — are struggling with unreliable Internet service and other technological issues.

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“We are helping them to trouble shoot, dropping off Wi-Fi hot spot kits to them, and getting on the phone with Comcast with them,” she said, noting that she and other teachers are also meeting with their students in person in pandemic safe spots, like front porches. “When the Internet quality is low and students get kicked off every three minutes, they get frustrated.”

Many parents say they have reached breaking points with remote instruction and worry that their children are not learning as much as they would in a classroom.

Tashani Strother, whose 6-year-old daughter attends kindergarten and 9-year-old daughter is in the third grade, expressed frustration that classrooms remain closed and said it is creating mounting financial hardship.

To oversee her children’s education at home, Strother said she had to quit her job as a server at Dunkin. While she appreciates that school officials are making free school meals available for pickup at distribution sites, she says she has no time to get there because online learning in her small apartment goes on from 8:45 a.m. to 4:10 p.m.

She said she also must buy supplies that typically would be provided by the schools, especially for science and art projects. Her girls have already gone though nearly 30 notebooks since the beginning of the school year.

“It’s hard all the way across the board,” she said. “I feel like BPS could be doing a better job for our children period.”

Danielle Sheehan said it is a constant struggle to get her 6-year-old son to sit down in front of his computer for kindergarten classes because he finds it anxiety-inducing and stressful. Her son has disabilities, including attention deficit disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and severe sensory disorders.

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“He gets stomachaches before going on. He doesn’t like being on camera,” she said. “His teacher is working extremely hard to cater to him and his needs. The problem is the way he has to learn.”

The data comes amid growing concern that classroom closures statewide may be inflicting academic and mental harm to countless students — some of it due to students’ lack of daily connection with teachers and classmates.

In an effort to address that, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley on Tuesday will ask the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to approve several “emergency regulations” that will set a minimum amount of live instruction when students are learning remotely. If approved, districts and schools conducting all learning remotely must provide live instruction to students every day.

In Boston, fewer than 200 students with profound disabilities are receiving in-person instruction at four of the district’s 125 schools. On Monday, the district plans to open an additional 28 schools for 1,700 students with significant needs. School officials said they hope to bring back more students after the holiday break, depending upon COVID-19 infection rates.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said she was surprised daily attendance didn’t decline more than it did.

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“I truly do think it’s a reflection of how hard educators are working to connect with students not only for their academics but also their social-emotional needs,” said Tang, who also praised parents for helping their children with remote learning.

It remains unclear whether the shift to remote learning is causing more students to quit school. But one key barometer is encouraging: The volume of students being tracked by the school system’s re-engagement center, which convinces dropouts to go back to school, is about the same this fall as it was last fall, roughly 700 students, said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which helps run the center.

“It wasn’t like we were doing well with all students before pandemic — it’s a preexisting condition,” Sullivan said. But he added the question now is “how do we use the crisis to come out in a better place to support them.”

Bianca Vázquez Toness of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.