RICHMOND, Va. -- New data revealed that virtual class attendance has decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Richmond Public School Superintendent Jason Kamras.
“The lower attendance rate is heartbreaking,” Kamras said during a Zoom interview on Tuesday.
Richmond Public School Chief of Staff Harry Hughes presented the latest attendance figures to the School Board during their meeting on Monday.
Hughes said more than 20 percent of students had already missed at least two days during the first 20 days of virtual instruction.
“What we are talking about is two days of being absent. Not much at that point of the year, but if you map it out for the rest of the year it will add up,” Kamras explained.
That is an increase of three percent compared to last year.
“[The attendance rate] was moving in the right direction,” Kamras said. “It was falling and so the pandemic has reversed that.”
Kamras said the attendance rate represents one in five RPS students who are on the path to becoming chronically absent.
The highest number of absences were recorded among 13 elementary schools and one middle school.
“The fact that it’s happening more at the elementary level is an indication to us that the cause is adult supervision issues,” Kamras stated.
Hughes cited several complications during the pandemic which led to the lower attendance rate.
Out of necessity some Kindergarten through fifth grade students were supervised by older siblings who were RPS students themselves, Hughes told the board.
He said many families were not opting to utilize the emergency childcare centers for fear of bringing the virus into their homes and infecting vulnerable family members.
Transportation to those childcare centers was also an issue for some families.
On Tuesday, Governor Ralph Northam was asked about the low attendance rates following an announced aimed at ending childhood hunger.
“We have to look at why these children are absent,” Northam said. “This is an equity issue. When we are asking students and families to learn virtually that means they have to have access to technology, broadband and computers.”
Some RPS families have hesitated to contact their student’s teacher when a device was lost or broken fearing they’d have to pay the cost to repair the technology. Kamras reassured parents that they would not be on the hook for the cost of repairs.
RPS said an increase in crime, particularly on the Southside and East End, also contributed to lower attendance rates.
“Some students who would normally go to an informal pod in the neighborhood were no longer doing so, and some K-5 students were staying physically and emotionally ‘hunkered down’ during the day due to the violence they saw and heard,” according to the meeting’s notes.
Kamras said the school system was deploying 20 family liaisons, including dozens of social workers, counselors and teachers to help remedy the issue.
“Our goal is to make contact with every single family and find out what is their unique challenge,” Kamras said.
The Superintendent has also made several home visits.
“Mom was at work in order to pay the rent and keep a roof over her childrens' head. But that meant the junior at high school was keeping an eye on the kindergartener, third grader, and seventh grader,” he explained.
Katey Comerford, Executive Director of Higher Achievement in Richmond, said the pandemic has also negatively impacted their efforts to provide after-school care.
Pre-pandemic,16 different RPS schools fed into three achievement centers at Bindford, Boushall, and Henderson Middle Schools. Comerford and her staff have since switched to a virtual learning environment.
She said enrollment is down “noticeably” over last year, but increases each week.
“We are still in some uncharted territory” when it comes to virtual learning," Comerford said. “It’s not what we signed up for, but no one did. Our scholars didn’t ask to go to school during a pandemic."
Kamras said every public-school superintendent he’s spoken to in Virginia has seen a decrease in their average daily membership. That means a family has chosen to home school their students or send them to a private school.
He hoped the General Assembly would soon enact a “hold harmless provision,” which would prevent low attendance numbers from impacting a school system’s funding.