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Students aren’t showing up for virtual learning. ‘Are they well cared for? Are they safe?’

“This should be a wake-up call,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, on declining attendance numbers in Camden schools.

Superintendent of Camden Schools Katrina McCombs.
Superintendent of Camden Schools Katrina McCombs.Read moreDavid Maialetti / File Photograph

In virtual school, on any given day, one in four Camden public school students is absent.

Nearly 1,700 students, or about 25% of the student enrollment in the state-run district, are not showing up for class, said Superintendent Katrina McCombs. Average daily attendance has fallen during the pandemic from about 92% last year to about 75%.

McCombs and state educators who oversee Camden schools want to know why so many kids are missing school. The district has been fully remote since schools were shut down by the coronavirus last spring.

“It is something we’re taking very seriously,” McCombs said.

Surprisingly, kindergarten, first and second-grade students have the lowest attendance rate overall, while ninth graders have the lowest attendance rate among high school students, she said. Camden enrolls about 6,800 students in its traditional public schools.

In Philadelphia, 57.1% of the students district-wide have attended 95% of the instructional days through November, said spokesperson Christina Clark.

The pandemic has had the biggest impact on students in poor-performing and economically disadvantaged districts like Camden, but school officials across the region are struggling to keep students engaged in remote instruction. They worry about students falling behind academically.

They are sending letters, making home visits, delivering Chromebooks, troubleshooting internet problems, and calling parents who may be unaware that their children are chronically absent. Some students are logging on for part of the school day or turning on remote cameras, and walking away from the computer, officials say.

“Sometimes you have to go on site to see what’s going in,” said Denise King, principal at B. Bernice Young Elementary in Burlington Township. “We’re tracking every day. We have to make sure we stay on top of it.”

On a recent Thursday, King said 51 students at her school were absent and 31 were tardy. The school enrolls more than 700 students.

» READ MORE: Attending virtual school: Should cameras be on or off for remote learners?

Accompanied by a school resource officer, Nicole Moore, principal of Indian Mills School, delivered books and paper assignments to a student in Shamong who had not logged on. Two days later, after a second visit, the student was back online, she said.

“I’m worrying about kids,” said Moore. She estimated that about seven students were absent regularly. Her school has about 360 students.

In some cases, school officials in New Jersey said they have reported absent students to the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency after repeated, failed efforts to reach parents to check on students. Parents can be cited in municipal court for “educational neglect” for their child’s chronic unexplained absences.

“Are they well-cared? Are they safe?” said Sherry Knight, principal of the Capt. James Lawrence School in Burlington City, where about 10 of her 220 students are missing school daily.

New Jersey has not provided figures on how many students are logging on daily for remote learning. Schools are required to be open 180 days. The state leaves it to districts to come up with attendance policies. Children between 6 and 16 must attend school.

» READ MORE: School is digital, kids are overwhelmed. How do you manage screen time in the COVID-19 era?

With most of the nearly 600 students at Overbrook High School in Pine Hill opting for remote learning, principal Adam Lee said his biggest concern is those who don’t log in and don’t complete assignments. About three or four students are absent from every class, and some may have to repeat the school year, he said.

There are many reasons why students may not attend virtual classes, experts say. Some may not have electronic devices or need help logging on, or may lack internet service or adequate bandwidth. Others may be responsible for supervising younger siblings while their parents work outside the home.

In Philadelphia, that’s why how attendance is recorded during the pandemic sometimes varies, said James Murray, principal of Rowen Elementary in West Oak Lane.

“We recognize that we have families with essential workers, families who are unable to be part of teacher-led meetings,” said Murray. “We are literally developing individual plans for the students at our schools.”

If students log on, they are marked present. That means, in some cases, a student might log in but skip some classes or fail to complete work, teachers said.

» READ MORE: How one Philly high school reveals the district’s dire attendance problems

“Students come from very different backgrounds and different learning capabilities,” said Selina Carrera, a teacher at the district’s school at the Juvenile Justice Center.

McCombs, in an annual report this month to the State Board of Education on Camden’s progress since the 2013 state takeover, said the district is trying to figure out why students aren’t coming to school. Administrators, guidance counselors, and social workers are tracking down missing students, she said. Students with more than 20 absences are reported to truancy court, she said.

About 4% of Camden’s students, roughly 200, don’t have Chromebooks, partly contributing to the absenteeism, McCombs said. They receive paper packets because their parents have declined to sign release forms to receive the devices, she said.

Statewide, about 33,000 New Jersey public school students lack devices, down from more than 200,000 when the pandemic began, according to the state.

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, which advocates for equity funding for low-income districts, said the state should provide more assistance to students who were already lagging behind their counterparts in wealthier schools.

» READ MORE: Where are all the kindergartners? In a pandemic, some parents aren’t enrolling them in public school.

“This should be a wake-up call,” Sciarra said. ”A massive number of students will” be behind when schools reopen in person.

Meeting attendance requirements doesn’t mean students are learning, and some New Jersey lawmakers are pushing a bill that would require the state Department of Education to compile information on learning loss and attendance rates.

“More than ever, it is abundantly clear there is a need for real-time data on where our children stand academically,” said State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, (D., Essex), chairman of the Education Committee.

Inquirer staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.