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Schools battle drops in attendance by breaking barriers to education

School districts in the Eugene-Springfield area report an overall drop in attendance from in-person learning last fall.

Posted: Dec 4, 2020 1:33 PM
Updated: Dec 7, 2020 4:36 AM

EUGENE, Ore. -- As school districts in the Eugene-Springfield area are seeing drops in attendance this school year, educators are working to break barriers to education.

Eugene School District 4J experienced a 1.7% decrease in attendance in the first six weeks of the fall term over the previous year, according to assistant superintendent for instruction Charis McGaughy. 

"It's down from last year, but not as much as we had feared," she said. 

Attendance is counted when students participate in live lessons online or complete schoolwork online. Teachers and staff members also work to ensure students stay engaged throughout the day.

At the beginning of the year, the district identified 150 students who hadn't even logged in, leading wraparound services teams to reach out to each student and family to discover what was blocking them from virtual learning.

"We're flying a plane as we are building it, and everyone is patient and giving us grace," said McGaughy. "Every student who is not going to school has a different need and we need to find what the barrier is."

They found several main systemic barriers to online learning, like internet dead zones, lack of child care, or mental health concerns. They then connected students to solutions like regional internet hubs, limited in-person child care and other resources.

Teachers, student teams, counselors and other support staff at the school level begin reaching out to students and families after five absences to uncover barriers and find solutions. At 30 days, a district-wide team makes contact.

Officials said by mid-November, 2,241 students were absent five or more times, while 15 hadn't attended 30 days or more.

Meanwhile, at Bethel School District in west Eugene, 703 students have missed more than five days and nine had not attended for 30 days.

A total of 38 students were expected to return for the school year but did not without indication that they had transferred districts and were unable to be contacted.

Bethel uses a similar system of teams contacting families to discover systemic barriers.

"It's working. For the vast majority of students, it's working. And for those students who are not yet engaging, it raises a red flag for us," said spokesman Pat McGillvray. "Teachers are connecting with students. Letting students know there is a caring adult waiting for them."

Springfield Public Schools estimated about a 5% reduction in attendance and engagement so far this school year. They had created a similar system to address systemic barriers by the time the Holiday Farm Fire devastated communities along the McKenzie River.

"When we were navigating wildfires in our area, we had a lot of displaced families and that system really helped to quickly identify what the families' needs are and help them reengage if possible," said assistant superintendent David Collins. 

He believes that pandemic-era distance learning has helped administrators learn valuable lessons about equity and addressing systemic problems effectively. Those insights will be valuable long after the pandemic ends.

"A horrible situation we've been navigating with the pandemic, but there's lots of opportunities to be learned," said Collins.

For teachers, who have had to learn an entirely new mode of instruction, many have noticed wavering engagement and attendance as well.

North Eugene High School Japanese language teacher Nathan Goldberg said that attendance started off strong in the fall. He believes students were hungry for socialization and normalcy.

"That has since dropped off, as the challenges, the reality of what we are trying to do from teaching and what students are doing on their end has set in," he said. 

Goldberg said his students have reported increased anxiety and burnout during distance learning. He has noticed some students who normally thrived during in-person learning were experiencing more difficulties.

Many teachers who have had to learn new technologies are already working long hours. While keeping a close eye on student engagement and having conversations about issues preventing learning takes even more time, Goldberg said it is essential work.

"It turns into, 'OK, let's take a good hard look at what you're missing as far as the work goes, and let's figure out what are the essential skills that you need. This other stuff, let's forget about it,'" he said. "Really just trying to bring humanity into this."

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