Tracking attendance is “kind of tricky” this year, acknowledged Salem-Keizer Assistant Superintendent Kraig Sproles.

That’s because up until March, for elementary students, the district tracked attendance one way, one outlined by the Oregon Department of Education’s “Ready Schools, Safe Learners” guidance.

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“Things like, if a student logs in and completes work on an assignment, they’re considered having attended in the digital format, which is a really different way of taking physical attendance when kids show up,” Sproles said.

Salem-Keizer’s attendance rate for elementary students from October to March was 91.69%, according to the district.

The district data shared with OPB begins in October because of the wildfires in September and their impact on students and their families.

But now, like an increasing number of districts in the state, Salem-Keizer has moved away from students learning completely online — “comprehensive distance learning” — and launched “hybrid learning” — in which students learn part of the time at school, and part of the time online from home. Salem-Keizer elementary students are back in school two days a week. The rest of the week, they continue to learn from home.

It’s Oregon’s second-largest district, with many elementary students who have been back in classrooms for a month. Looking at and analyzing Salem Keizer’s data may provide an idea of how attendance in other large school districts will look as more students return to school buildings, and administrators face the challenges that come with moving from distance learning to hybrid learning.

Now that students are in school in Salem-Keizer, ways to track attendance changed again and are more like “traditional” ways of tracking attendance, such as a student raising their hand or shouting “here” from their classroom chair.

According to district data, attendance in physical classrooms is not as high as it was previously when students were learning from home. The attendance rate for elementary students since hybrid started is 85.95%. Sproles says one possible reason is that families now have to adapt to a new schedule, and that takes time.

Sproles said the district has heard from families having trouble finding childcare, or rearranging work schedules.

“You can’t change a family’s structure — what you have set up — overnight, even if the child and the parents really want to be back in school,” Sproles said.

At the same time, on the days that the hybrid learning structure requires students to log on from home, Sproles said attendance has been lower there as well, compared with attendance rates when all students were in full-time distance learning.

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Classrooms all have different log-in times now, and that’s another change for families and students to adjust to.

“On the day they’re learning from home, they need to log in, they have contact with a teacher on that day as well, and they have school work they need to be completing on their work at home day,” Sproles said.

Just like around the state, there are thousands of students staying home for the rest of the year. In Salem-Keizer, that means moving into the district’s online-only EDGE program. Almost 500 elementary students moved into EDGE when hybrid began, and more than 300 secondary students will do the same when hybrid begins for them, according to the district.

For those students, attendance has decreased, too.

Elementary student attendance in EDGE from September 2020 to February 2021 was 91.65%. In the last month, it’s been 82.20%.

The average combined attendance for all students in EDGE K-12 is 90%, according to the district. The online-only program will continue next year, though it will feature different tracks for students with varying teacher interaction.

‘Big difference’ between attendance and engagement

As much as these numbers tell a story, they don’t tell the whole story. Being marked “present” in class doesn’t mean the same thing as a student engaging with classmates, or getting help from a teacher.

Engagement is harder to quantify, and metrics vary from teacher to teacher, and from school to school.

From what Sproles hears around the district, engagement is “very strong.”

“By and large, most elementary students want to be at school,” Sproles said. “And if they haven’t been in school for a full year, they really want to be in school.”

Secondary students in Salem-Keizer are set to return to school buildings beginning Tuesday.

The return to school for older students may bring another hit to attendance data. In terms of engagement, Sproles said the district has a community engagement specialist who is working with schools to figure out how students are doing and how to support better engagement as the year comes to a close.

Sproles said schools are working to help families with this transition to hybrid learning. He’s hopeful that once that happens, students will be in — and engage with — school more consistently.

“We’re hoping that as our routines pick up that families will figure out those family routines to support that,” Sproles said.

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