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Virtual Learning Truancy: Some Hampton Roads school districts report higher levels of chronic absenteeism

Some students thrive when it comes to virtual learning. In some school divisions, attendance is up. But in others, children are missing more classes than usual.

NORFOLK, Va. — While some Hampton Roads students are thriving with virtual learning, others are missing more classes than usual.

Wide-ranging changes in chronic absenteeism across our local school divisions reflect differences in access and opportunity, which could lead to summer school and year-round make-up programs.

6-year-old Kayden McLeod is a Norfolk Public Schools student who is excelling in a virtual learning setting, according to his family. He has a virtual school setup at his grandmother's house, who watches him while his mother goes to work.

"I would not have been able to make this whole virtual learning thing work if I didn’t have my mom, if she hadn’t retired she’d still be teaching her own class virtually," said Kayden's mother, Madeline McClaskey.

Other students have struggled with virtual classes. Anita Wynn, Portsmouth Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, said students have varying support systems and access at home.

“For parents, it’s often hard because they’re working and they’re sometimes not home to supervise or they’re with their daycare provider," Wynn said. "We know that we’re going back with bigger learning gaps and those learning gaps will have an impact on how we provide instruction.”

The Virginia Department of Education classifies chronic absenteeism as a student missing 10 percent or more of their classes.

13News Now collected chronic absenteeism statistics for the school divisions in the Seven Cities, between the First Day of School and Winter Break in 2020.

Three school divisions reported better attendance statistics in 2020 than during the 2018-2019 school year, the last full reported year before any pandemic effects.

Norfolk Public Schools: 12.45 percent of students "chronically absent" in 2020. 15.3 percent in SY18-19.

Hampton City Schools: 11.45 percent of students "chronically absent" in 2020. 13.1 percent in SY18-19.

Suffolk Public Schools: 4 percent of students "chronically absent" in 2020. 9.4 percent in SY18-19.

The four other school divisions reported increases in absenteeism, with Portsmouth Public Schools reporting nearly one in four students qualified as "chronically absent."

Portsmouth Public Schools: 23.5 percent in 2020. 16 percent in SY18-19.

Newport News Public Schools: 19 percent in 2020. 14.8 percent in SY18-19.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools: 9.95 percent in 2020. 9.4 percent in SY18-19.

Chesapeake Public Schools: 9.7 percent in 2020. 6.9 percent in SY18-19.

Wynn said the attendance statistics in Portsmouth are "very concerning," but they represent challenges that many children and their families are facing.

“It’s also alarming because we know there’s a great loss of learning and we know that we’re going to have to find ways to help them navigate that when they do return to school," she said.

Portsmouth Public Schools teachers can provide makeup work or incentives to help students recover attendance grades. Wynn said PPS is looking at Saturday programs, before and after-school remediation, and year-round schooling to make up the learning gaps.

"We’re at a place now where we have to do things differently," Wynn said. “I think all of us in education in America right now are trying to figure this out.”

She said job losses, coronavirus cases and effects, irregular schedules at home, socio-economic challenges, and access disparities could all be considered as factors contributing to a rise in chronic absenteeism.

“I don’t think there’s one reason for this increase in absenteeism, I think it’s the totality of the situation that our communities are dealing with," Wynn said. “We have to be flexible and we have to find ways to help them work around that.”

McClaskey said families have used all sorts of resources to make virtual learning work with their schedules.

“I have to work, people have to work, parents have to work, so it’s been an adjustment," she said.

She credited Norfolk Public Schools' commitment to a virtual learning schedule in 2020 as a big factor in her son Kayden's success.

“Having it be one consistent experience the entire time I think has definitely helped him do as well as he has," McClaskey said. “Starting his education this way I think is going to set him up for success.”

Wynn said educators need to realize they’ll likely never return to school in a fully-traditional setting.

“It has propelled us to a different paradigm where we know we’ll always have some platform of virtual learning for students," she said.

That means students like Kayden – who are doing well in a virtual learning setting – may have that option going forward. Other students, with attendance slipping, may need the structure of traditional school to get back on track.