Desks are set up at a gym for alternate learning classes on Thursday, Sep. 3, 2020 at Carrigan Intermediate School in West Haven. Part of the gym is available for one class at a time with a wall between them. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Homeless children in Connecticut were not showing up for classes in September at twice the rate of last year, according to a report released by the State Department of Education Wednesday night.

Last year, on average, homeless students failed to attend class on one out of every nine days; this year in September, the rate increased to two of every nine days. These 2,247 homeless students are primarily concentrated in the state’s poorest and historically underserved districts, a reality that has led to Connecticut having some of the largest achievement gaps in the country.

In New Haven, where students have remote classes this school year, homeless students have a 28.6 percent absentee rate. In Hartford, which recently switched to a hybrid plan and has the largest number of homeless children reported in the state, the absentee rate for homeless students is about 31.3 percent.

But these disparities transcend wealth. While the absentee rate for Black and Hispanic students increased from 6% last year to nearly 11% this September, attendance improved for white students, with an absentee rate of nearly 5% last year compared to 4% this September. English learners and students who have a learning or physical disability also saw a drastic uptick in absentee rates.

It’s impossible to know how these numbers compare to last March, when schools shut down abruptly without being able to prepare for the shift to remote learning. Districts were surveyed one time during the closure about student attendance but asked only broad questions about how often students are logging on, not average daily attendance rates, which were released Wednesday.

Comparing average daily attendance rates before the pandemic hit last spring shows an increase in absenteeism statewide, with the rate jumping from 5.2% to 6.7% statewide.

The data released are not broken down by learning models, so there is no way of knowing yet what attendance looks like for students who are learning entirely from home compared to those who have the opportunity to attend school in-person.

“Establishing systems within local school districts to collect that differentiated attendance didn’t really happen until later in the month of September,” said Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer for the education department. “So the September data don’t lend itself to sort of doing that split. But starting with October, we will be able to look at that split.”

A weekly survey of districts, however, does show that for students who went entirely remote, one out of every 38 children is not signing on at all each week.

This is the first time the state has collected and released month-to-month attendance data. The state has also issued guidance to districts on how to track attendance for remote learning since that model has changed the way attendance is counted in various districts.

“We’re asking districts to do things that they haven’t had to do before, during a pandemic while they’re trying to keep schools open,” said state Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona during Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting. “We’re asking for information on a regular basis so that we can ensure that we’re doing everything we can in our power to keep kids engaged and keep them in school.”

The state department of education also announced Wednesday that there has been a 3% drop in enrollment statewide in K-12 schools this academic year, the largest decline coming from pre-K and kindergarten students, with public pre-K dropping 20% and kindergarten by nearly 12%. There was also a slight decline in grades 1-7.

The department said one of the factors they believe played a role in the pre-K and kindergarten enrollment decline is parents holding off on sending their younger kids to public school this year due to the pandemic. State officials were unable to say whether schools are offering fewer pre-K slots to students, a grade districts are largely not required by state law to offer.

Additional factors the department said are contributing to the overall 3% drop in enrollment are parents deciding to home-school their children. Between June and October last year, the state had 547 students switch to homeschooling, but this year that number increased to 3,571.

These enrollment numbers are based on preliminary data and are subject to change, according to the state. Final enrollment counts for the 2020-21 school year will be published by the end of February 2021.

“We’re doing our best to be as transparent as we possibly can,” Gopalakrishnan said. “But know that … collection is still in process.”

TIPS WANTED: Are you or someone you know with school-aged children experiencing homelessness? We want to hear from you. Send us an email at tips@ctmirror.org

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that the share of students who were absent had increased. It was the rate of absenteeism among all students, not the number of students who were absent, that increased.

Adria was CT Mirror's Education and Community Reporter. She grew up in Oakland, graduated from Sacramento State where she was co-news editor of the student newspaper, and worked as a part-time reporter at CalMatters. Most recently Adria interned at The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Adria was one of CT Mirror’s Report For America Corps Members.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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