How can online learning work if students aren’t online? And what happens if kids don’t participate?

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Empty desks at school. Photo credit: Pixabay.

About a month into online learning for K-12 students, not all kids are even going online; school attendance policies are lax to nonexistent and the state hasn’t come up with a way to track student participation for the remote lessons, the Florida Phoenix has found.

Those issues fly in the face of state compulsory attendance and truancy laws — children must attend school from age 6 to under 16 — but many school districts as well as the Florida Department of Education don’t have a way to ensure all students are learning online lessons at home.

“We currently don’t have a way to collect data on students participating in distance learning, but we are working on a way for districts to report that,” Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said in an email to the Phoenix.

Given all those circumstances, it’s likely students won’t learn what they could have accomplished in the last part of the 2019-20 school year, as the coronavirus outbreak was expanding. And studies say kids will likely be behind when they get to the new academic year this fall.

Some families are still lacking laptops and internet access; parents are struggling to help their students with difficult assignments; and educators are still tackling remote-learning technology and trying to teach a full slate of classes.

Meanwhile, Floridians may not know that some kids aren’t even going online to do their remote lessons.

According to Florida’s compulsory attendance law, all children of certain ages must attend school regularly during the entire school term. The Department of Education normally keeps track of average daily attendance for public districts and schools. Truancy laws come into play when students miss too many days of school.

It’s unclear if the laws will be strictly enforced in Florida at the time of a public health emergency. Also not certain is the situation with high school students: Students 16 and older are no longer under the compulsory attendance law, so they may be less likely to participate in the online learning.

“Under normal circumstances our district rarely has to resort to enforcing truancy laws, opting instead to offer support and work with families,” Stephen Hegarty, public information officer at Pasco County Schools, said in an email to the Phoenix.

“We would anticipate it would be even more rare in the current environment due to the myriad extenuating circumstances related to the pandemic.”

Overall, about 2.8 million students were enrolled in schools in 67 Florida districts in 2019-20, but those schools had to quickly transform bricks-and-mortar learning to at-home remote learning because of the coronavirus.

Many school districts have allowed students to learn at their own pace and students don’t necessarily have to log into learning platforms every day.

“From what I can tell, most teachers are not keeping track of how many hours they attend. First of all, many of our teachers are not taking attendance, per se. Unless there is a live lesson on Zoom [online learning platform] or something, you can do your work on your own time. If you do two days’ worth of work on Monday, there’s no need to check in on Tuesday. Also, students are doing plenty of work offline,” said Hegarty, of Pasco County Schools.

“We just want to know that they are doing their assignments and have logged on — even if it isn’t every day,” he added.

Attendance data for traditional school settings show that nearly 94 percent of students were recorded as “present” in the Pasco district in the 2018-19 school year. But that was last year.

Now that remote learning is underway, students are still engaged in online learning, mostly with elementary students, Hegarty noted.

Other districts are using a variety of methods to monitor remote learning attendance, such as login activity on virtual platforms and sending emails to teachers.

Collier County Public Schools takes attendance on a weekly basis — not daily — “based on student activity” in Canvas, a distance learning platform, according to the Jennifer L. Kupiec, a district communications specialist.

“To be marked present for the entire week, students must participate in eLearning or communicate with their teacher at least once during the week,” Kupiec said in an email to the Phoenix.

In Duval County Public Schools, teachers record attendance in a variety of ways, said spokeswoman Sonya Duke-Bolden.

Those attendance methods include logging into online platforms; sending an email or a message; calling a teacher or other school employee; or participating in online forums.

“Bear in mind that virtual, home-based learning is less structured than traditional school and allows for more independent learning; students are able to work on and complete assignments at other times. So while our teachers are available between 8 a.m. – 2:50 p.m. to engage with students and provide guided lessons, there is no expectation that students are sitting in front of a computer non-stop for seven hours,” Duke-Bolden said.

Meanwhile, at Alachua County Public Schools, the district is not taking attendance, said Public Information Officer Jackie Johnson.

“We are not tracking student online participation. … We still have hundreds of students using paper packets,” Johnson said. “Please note that the district has 212,000 students and some students are using paper packets.”

Miami-Dade County Public Schools said in a press release earlier this month that student attendance is captured through the use of sign-ins to a student portal.

This week, “students had an average daily attendance rate of more than 91 percent,” a press release stated. However, 2018-19 data for Miami-Dade showed an average daily attendance of about 94 percent for traditional schools, prior to coronavirus.

The district is not issuing unexcused absences and teachers are working with students to make up any missed assignments.