Philadelphia teacher Jenifer Felix has tried to reach her students and their families in myriad ways since the coronavirus closed schools: with calls and texts, through Facebook messages and Instagram stories.

Her school, Kensington Health Sciences Academy, prides itself on having close ties with pupils. Still, as many as 25% of Felix’s students aren’t logging on or completing work because they lack wireless internet, have to work, or care for family members.

As the pandemic has forced classes online, not all students have been able to follow. Weeks after the interruption of in-person learning, some pupils still haven’t logged in or communicated with teachers.

“Our number-one concern is making connections with students and families,” said Superintendent Richard Dunlap of the Coatesville Area School District, where 15% of its more than 5,700 students are unaccounted for.

The transition to online learning has been a challenge for schools, students, and families nationwide. But connecting all learners to remote instruction poses particular hurdles for schools with concentrations of needy students, whose families may be facing unemployment, food and housing insecurity, and technology gaps.

In Coatesville, where most students are low income, the Chester County district has been trying to identify why some aren’t logging on: Is it a lack of internet access? Do parents who don’t speak English understand what’s happening? The district, which launched online instruction April 14, has been visiting homes to meet with families and set up technology, Dunlap said.

“If ever there’s a chance where the socioeconomic divide will widen, it’s in this environment. And we’re trying to mitigate that as best as we can,” said Dunlap, whose district, like many, is also providing meals to students during the pandemic closures.

The Inquirer asked more than two dozen Pennsylvania and New Jersey school districts about attendance during the pandemic. Several declined to provide numbers, but said rates were high. Some said they were monitoring attendance in multiple ways — including whether students without internet access turn in paper packets — making it difficult to give a precise rate.

Nationally, some large districts have reported participation issues during the closures — such as Los Angeles, where one-third of high school students initially weren’t in daily contact with a teacher.

Many school districts are not formally tracking attendance, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell, which reviewed coronavirus education plans from 82 districts enrolling nine million students. It said just 16 require schools to keep attendance.

That doesn’t count Philadelphia, which says it will not be recording attendance as usual but using it to identify and contact students who are not participating.

“Until you track attendance, you just won’t know where the gaps are,” said Bree Dusseault, practitioner in residence at the center. She noted that the Miami-Dade district found schools with the lowest attendance rates during the closures have higher shares of students living in poverty or learning English. The district says it’s delivering technology to homes of students in those schools.

Local districts just starting online instruction say they don’t yet know to what extent students are engaged.

“By, let’s say, April 30, if we have vast amounts of zeros in our assignment books, that’s going to be very telling,” said Stephen Rodriguez, superintendent in the Pottstown School District, which began a formal learning program Monday for high schoolers and will extend that to all students by May 4. He said the district will not be processing truancy, but looking for “red flags."

Pennsylvania is not requiring that schools report attendance to the state Education Department during the closures. New Jersey’s Education Department told its districts that students should be considered present unless a district “knowingly determines” they were not participating in any instruction during pandemic closures.

Beth Norcia, superintendent of the Maple Shade School District in Burlington County, said it is requiring teachers to alert principals if they have not had contact with a student. The principal and counselors will then reach out to families through email and phone calls.

“We continue to call each day until we make contact,” Norcia said. While not “100% successful,” the district’s elementary schools have well over 90% of students attending each day, while high school attendance is approaching 85%, she said.

The Bensalem School District, which began taking attendance April 1, has found its rates are similar to before the closures — though some elementary schools are “not as high as we would like,” said Superintendent Samuel Lee. He said high school attendance has been above 90%, middle school, about 95%, while elementary ranges from the low 70s to the high 90s.

For secondary students, attendance is collected when they log on to Schoology, the district’s learning platform — between midnight and 11:59 p.m., Lee said. “They have 24 hours to make themselves known and engaged,” he said. Elementary students are tracked by answering a question through a Google form, which gets sent to a building secretary for attendance.

“We continue to be aggressive related to connecting with our families, and also sensitive" to this being a remarkable time presenting unique challenges, Lee said.

Though Coatesville is still trying to reach students, the vast majority of those with laptops and internet access are participating, Dunlap said. He said more than 84% of students were logged on Thursday. Prior to the closures, the district’s average daily attendance rate was about 90%.

Philadelphia’s pandemic policy says students are expected to participate in remote learning “to the greatest extent possible” but acknowledges engagement may vary based on “access to technology, WiFi, electricity, time availability and more.”

Universal Alcorn Charter Middle School principal Aaron Starke distributes Chromebooks to families and students earlier this month.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Universal Alcorn Charter Middle School principal Aaron Starke distributes Chromebooks to families and students earlier this month.

The district, which began online lessons last Monday, won’t introduce new material until May 4. District students are expected to log in to their student portal Monday through Friday, and teachers and other school staff are tasked with reaching out to those not actively engaging to help troubleshoot problems.

Districts that equipped all students with technology before the pandemic transitioned more easily to online learning.

Ridley School District began buying iPads in 2011; its students started online instruction March 18 through the Canvas learning management system. It tracks their logins, the pages they visit, and how long they stay on them, said Superintendent Lee Ann Wentzel.

Teachers have until the morning to finalize the previous day’s attendance, so if students don’t submit assignments until the evening, they can still be marked present, Wentzel said.

The Delaware County district has seen strong engagement — upward of 90% on a given day at the elementary-school level, Wentzel said — and if a child isn’t participating, “everybody has a role to play to try to loop a family in." Near the beginning of the shutdown, one elementary had reached all but one of its 200 students, Wentzel said.

As staff brainstormed how to get in touch with the family, within an hour, the student’s parent contacted a teacher — because word the school was trying to reach them had gotten out.

Felix, the Kensington Health Sciences teacher, knows her students care deeply about their education and feel connected to their school. But for some, the barriers to attending school during the pandemic are too great.

One student lacks internet access; her family tried to sign up for free service, but their home is not properly wired and they couldn’t afford to make it so. The only communication Felix has with the student is through her boyfriend, another pupil in her class; he takes schoolwork to his girlfriend when he can, and lets Felix know that she’s OK.

“It’s all I can hope for right now,” Felix said.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.