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CPS students log on at much higher rates than the spring, but attendance down from previous years

The early engagement levels are a promising start for a district in which barely half of students attended online classes three or more days per week after school buildings closed in the spring.

Charlie Cobbs, left, and his daughter Crystal, right, set up Crystal’s laptop at Morgan Park High School in Morgan Park Saturday morning, Sept. 5, 2020. Staff distributed laptops to students before the start of classes.
Charlie Cobbs, left, and his daughter Crystal, right, set up Crystal’s laptop at Morgan Park High School in Morgan Park Saturday morning, Sept. 5, 2020. Staff distributed laptops to students before the start of classes.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

UPDATE: This story has been corrected to reflect that of CPS’ 513 non-charter schools, 157 had three-quarters or less of their students log into classes on the first day of school last week.

About four of every five Chicago Public Schools students logged on for the first week of school, a markedly higher rate than in the spring despite first-day attendance still dipping from previous years in a sign of the continued challenges of remote learning, figures released Friday by the district show.

The early engagement levels are a promising start for a school system in which barely half of students attended online classes three or more days per week after the coronavirus pandemic forced buildings to close in the spring.

Yet the first week was a mixed bag, with dozens of schools drawing better attendance than previous years’ district-wide average, while a handful of schools still had less than half their students log on.

The results reflect a varying degree of success in bridging a stubborn technology gap and creating an online learning plan that is achievable for working-families who are juggling students’ classes with parents’ jobs.

CPS released data from the first three days of this school year in an unusually transparent move Friday that showed 84.2% of registered students attended remote classes Tuesday, down from an average first-day attendance of 94.3% the previous four years.

Attendance district-wide rose the second day of school and then reached 90.2% by Thursday as school staffers and district employees continued outreach to families about registration, free internet offerings and computer distribution.

Of CPS’ 513 non-charter schools, there were 19 that drew fewer than half their students for the first day of school, and 157 schools had less than three-quarters of their students log on.

‘I almost fainted’

Where there was work to be done at some schools, there was also success at others.

At DePriest Elementary in Austin, an average of 35% of students engaged online at least once a week after remote learning started in earnest in April, according to CPS records. Only 18.9% of DePriest students were online three or more days per week, 5.9% logged on five days a week and there was not a single day in the spring when more than half of kids attended classes.

This week, 77% of DePriest students attended virtual classes for the first day of school, and by Friday there were only 20 students — about 4% of the school — who still hadn’t logged in at all, principal Latasha Geverola said.

“I almost fainted,” Geverola said of when she first saw the engagement this week. “I was like, ‘Yes, yes.’ And 77 is not the best number. But for the level of outreach that we made, I’ll take a 77 for the first week. And I’m going to shoot for a 90 the second week.

“You don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and any given time, 10 different things could be going on in these people’s homes. And the fact that they got online says that they’re dedicated and that they’re trying. Of course we’ll want more than 84 [district-wide], of course we’ll want to shoot for 100, but that’s progress.”

DePriest Elementary in Austin
Google

DePriest staffers are in contact with every family that still hasn’t connected with classes, Geverola said, and problems range from delays in internet installation to grandparents serving as guardians and not immediately understanding the technology. The school fielded 200 calls the first day of school from families asking for help fixing password problems or other computer struggles.

A teacher at a West Side high school said he also was seeing far higher attendance in his classes than in the spring. He said the message that students have to be in class has apparently gotten through.

“Numbers are many times higher for me,” said the teacher, who asked that his name not be used. “Much better so far.”

CPS CEO Janice Jackson acknowledged attendance was lower than previous years but said she was encouraged by the district’s outreach efforts. District officials said hundreds of employees called the families of almost 21,000 students in recent weeks to let them know about resources available to them.

“The overwhelming majority of our students showed up ready and eager to learn on the first day of school,” Jackson said in a statement, “and I am so proud of our staff and school communities who have been working tirelessly over the summer to ensure families had what they need to log-in on day one.”