School absenteeism affecting students living in shelters the most, advocates say

School classroom with blackboard
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Education advocates are calling on the City to use $7 billion in federal education COVID-19 recovery funds towards a school recovery plan that includes investing more bilingual staff,  shelter-based staff, social-emotional support and outreach to families. 

The call comes shortly after the Department of Education released attendance data for January 2021 which proves what many in school communities assumed last year, the pandemic is taking a disproportionally high toll on students in marginalized groups especially those living in the shelter system. 

In January, public school students living in shelters had an attendance rate roughly 14% lower than the rate for students with permanent housing at  75.7% with the department reporting an even lower attendance rate specifically among high schoolers living in shelters, according to a policy brief from Advocate for Children of New York.  

According to the brief, students in the 9th, 10th and 12th grades and living in shelters had an attendance rate of just 64% to 67% that month which translates to missing more than one out of every three school days. In addition, English Language Learners living in shelters and students with disabilities engaged less than their non-disabled and native English-speaking peers. 

Advocates determine ELL students and those with disabilities in the 10th grade–about 30,000 teens in total–missed roughly one out of every four school days in January. That drop represents a decrease in about 10 percentage points in attendance rate for ELL students in the 10th grade during 2018-19 school year. 

“The latest attendance data should spur City Hall and the DOE to action,” said Kim Sweet, AFC’s Executive Director. “Tens of thousands of students are still struggling to access an education because of the pandemic or are at risk of disconnecting from school entirely. With the DOE poised to get billions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funding, now is the time to put forward a comprehensive plan for an equitable recovery.”
As part of the education recovery plan, advocates would also like to see the City provide more one-on-one or small group tutoring for students and boost the number of staff such as social workers and behavioral specialists in public schools. 
In addition, advocates believe the City should give special education students and ELL students extra support in making up for lost instruction time during the pandemic and allow 21-year-old students who would normally age out of the system or denied the chance to attend Summer Rising this year, more time to work towards their diplomas during next school year. 
“Our schools work with the entire school community to engage students and remove any barriers to daily attendance – with a special focus on our most vulnerable students. Our goal throughout the pandemic is supporting every student no matter their circumstances and in whatever way they need,” DOE spokesperson Nathaniel Styer told amNewYork Metro in addition to touting the school system’s average attendance rate  88.9% last year, two percent lower than the pre-pandemic average.
” To that end, we are welcoming 51,000 more students to in-person learning at the end of the month, and offering a groundbreaking, enriching summer program for any student who wants to attend.”
The DOE calculated January attendance rates by the number of days a student had a “present attendance status” during a 19-day-long period during the month, a rubric that could potentially create misleading data, according to some teachers. 
After all students were forced into remote last spring, Sarah Yorra, an ELA and English teacher at a public high school in Brooklyn, was instructed to follow DOE guidelines and mark down a remote student as “present” if they interacted with her online in any way. The interaction could be either participating in an in a class assignment or turning in homework at any time during the day. Given the vast majority of public school students– roughly 650,000–are enrolled in solely remote classes the rule has stayed in place. 
“So if a student posts something in the classroom stream but doesn’t come to the Google meet we still count that as present,” said Yorra. “This is another way to kind of massage your data upward.”