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De Blasio pushed to reopen school buildings. Only about a quarter of students showed up for in-person instruction.

October 27, 2020 Christina Veiga and Alex Zimmerman, Chalkbeat New York
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This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

Only 280,000 students attended in-person classes in the first month of school, Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed Monday, far fewer than the city previously suggested.

The number translates to a little more than a quarter of students showing up to school buildings, based on last year’s enrollment of about 1 million students. Last week, education department officials had claimed that 46 percent of students were returning to school buildings. The latest numbers show that about 180,000 fewer students actually did.

The difference could be explained by a number of factors. Students could be learning exclusively from home in far larger numbers than they’ve reported to the education department.

The education department and the mayor have long misrepresented the numbers of online versus hybrid learners. The city has only asked parents to answer surveys if they want to opt their children into remote-only instruction and seemed to assume that parents who didn’t answer affirmatively wanted to return to school buildings.

Enrollment could also have dropped, with students leaving the system for charters offering more live instruction online, or private and parochial schools that are offering more days of in-person instruction. Others may have opted for homeschool, left the city, or dropped out altogether. The city has still not released total enrollment numbers for this school year, but other large cities have seen significant dips.

It’s also possible that many students haven’t had any interaction with their schools. Officials did not immediately say how many students had failed to engage with their schools even a single time.

De Blasio acknowledged that the in-person learning number was “a work in progress,” and that he wanted to see more students coming to buildings.

“A lot more kids could be attending in person,” he said, “and we want to make sure that their families know and they know the school is safe.”

But under a new policy, families will only have one opportunity — from Nov. 2 through Nov. 15 — to switch from fully remote learning to the hybrid model where students attend school in person one to three days a week in most cases. Previously, families could switch to in-person learning periodically throughout the school year.

Meanwhile, daily attendance sank to 85.3 percent so far this year, compared to daily attendance around 92 percent before the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s not a bad number, but we want that number to go up,” de Blasio said.

The attendance figures provide an important first glimpse into the academic fallout of being at the world’s epicenter of the health crisis. The mayor had not only argued that the quality of in-person learning can’t be matched through remote instruction, he also diverted significant time and money towards reopening school buildings.

The city’s data shows that in-person students were having a tougher time showing up than those who are full remote, with only 82.9 percent of students showing up for in-person classes each day, and just under 85.5 percent of students logging in to virtual classes.

The city’s attendance figures come with some caveats. Schools appear to be using differing criteria to determine whether a student is “present” for online learning and the education department has emphasized “flexibility,” given that some students may struggle to log in at certain times because of their parents’ schedules or because they lack access to computers or the internet. Education department officials also suggested as late as last week that schools are still figuring out exactly how to tabulate who is present and who is absent.

“We have an entirely new system for recording and tracking attendance that some schools are still adjusting to and corrections need to be made on a daily basis,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot told Chalkbeat on Friday.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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