PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — One student became homeless. Another had to pick up work shifts during the school day. A third was grieving a loved one lost to COVID-19.
These were just some stories Olubunmi Olatunji said she heard from teens in Providence who were consistently missing school during this past year. Olatunji is the program director at Youth in Action, a South Providence-based organization that works with students from urban districts — especially Providence — after school.
“I was hearing, ‘Hey, I’m in a two-bedroom apartment with my family, I share a room with siblings. There’s no way I’m able to focus in class,'” she said in an interview with Target 12. “I had a student where the business they were working at told them if they didn’t start taking on more hours they would lose their job.”
The accounts Olatunji heard were not unusual. Data reviewed by Target 12 shows student absenteeism skyrocketed in Providence during the pandemic, with every single public school in the district reporting an increase in chronic absenteeism, defined as a student missing 10% or more of school days. (That’s 18 days or more in a full school year.)
As of the end of April, 60% of Providence students had been chronically absent this school year, according to the data, which includes both virtual and in-person learners. During the same time period last school year, 37% of students were chronically absent — a number that state leaders had already targeted for improvement when they took control of the district shortly before the pandemic.
High schools saw the highest rates of chronic absence. Mount Pleasant High School topped the list, with 84% of its students chronically absent from September through April, according to the most recently available data. That’s up from 47% during the same time frame last year.
Hope High School, Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex, Alvarez High School and 360 High School are all above 75% chronically absent this year. Every traditional public high school in Providence had more than half of students missing 10% or more of this school year.
“This is something that no one has experienced before,” said Khechara Bradford, deputy superintendent of learning for Providence schools. “I’ve never seen numbers with this many students absent.”
Bradford said the district heard many reasons why students weren’t able to come to school or log on virtually. Some had COVID or weren’t feeling well. But many were bogged down with new or increasing home obligations during the unusual year, such as taking care of younger siblings who weren’t going to daycare, or taking on more hours at their after-school jobs to help support their families.
“We saw students putting work over going to school, and they really struggled with that,” Bradford said.
The school district also opted not to enforce attendance, pausing disciplinary action including filing petitions in truancy court, and eliminating most truancy officers during a round of layoffs last year.
“Attendance didn’t seem as compulsory as it did before,” Bradford said. “We wanted everyone to take their health and safety first.”
Both virtual and in-person school experienced attendance problems. While the district returned in person in fall 2020, certain grade levels were on a hybrid schedule, and students also had the option to learn 100% remotely in the standalone Virtual Learning Academy.
Among the nearly 5,000 students who were learning virtually five days a week, 48% were chronically absent this school year as of June 17, according to the district’s data. (The last day of school is this Friday.)
The true absence numbers could be even higher, argues Melissa Palumbo, a first-grade teacher who taught this year over Zoom as part of the Virtual Learning Academy, known as VLA.
Palumbo said VLA teachers were told to mark students present if they answered a “question of the day” on a Google form each morning, even if they didn’t log on to the Zoom classes.
“I had a student who showed up the first four or five days, and then just stopped showing up,” Palumbo said in an interview with Target 12. “Did not show up at all. Would answer the attendance question, and would sometimes submit work, but did not come to Zooms. So did not receive any instruction at all.”
Describing herself as “very worried,” Palumbo said she tried to reach that particular student’s parents using the district’s communication program, called Kinvolved, as well as phone calls and text messages. She alerted administrators that the student had not been attending class.
“Short of going to their house and opening the computer and putting them on, there was really nothing else we could do,” she said.
Most of “Mrs. Palumbo’s fantastic first graders,” as she called them, did great this year and made big strides in learning to read. But Palumbo said she’s concerned about the fact that students who rarely logged on are being promoted to second grade.
“They definitely need to either spend another year in first grade, or have a very, very intensive program over the summer,” Palumbo said.
Decisions on whether to hold back students due to lost learning during the pandemic have not been made yet, according to district spokesperson Audrey Lucas.
“We have not made final decisions for promotion or retention yet — students at risk of not progressing on to another grade have been invited to participate in summer learning,” Lucas said. “Promotion or retention decisions at the elementary level that typically happen at the end of the school year will now take place at the end of summer.”
The school district did send people to the homes of chronically absent students this year, though officials said the volume of absences was too great to connect with every family. During the first semester from September to December, an average of more than 5,000 students a day were missing class, according to the district’s data. (There were 22,440 students enrolled in Providence Public Schools this year.)
Of those nearly 300,000 absences during the first semester, only 2.6% are listed as due to health reasons, while less than 1% are listed as other types of excused absences. The district listed 96.7% of the absences as “situation unknown.”
Bradford acknowledged that they weren’t asking families to provide an excuse for absences during the pandemic.
“We just didn’t want to add an additional task for families to send us that notification,” she said.
Nancy Scorpio, a longtime truancy officer, was one of the people knocking on doors in Providence this year. She told Target 12 that all seven truancy officers were laid off last year, but she and another officer were later brought back; Scorpio handled the secondary schools.
With the traditional truancy process on hold, she spent her days calling families and visiting the homes of chronically absent students, trying to help them get back to class.
“We were knocking on doors up until last week,” said Scorpio, who is retiring this week after 29 years in the school system. “I was one person trying to manage 17 schools.”
Multiple staffers at each of the school she handled were also involved in the attendance team, she said. They often found that families didn’t know what their child’s new schedule was, didn’t have the proper technology for virtual learning, or had other family issues that were impacting attendance.
Scorpio said the truancy court process, while sometimes punitive, could have helped get services to students who needed them in order to get back in school.
The school district plans to have just one truancy officer on staff in the fall, Lucas said Wednesday, describing the primary plan as to “shift our overall approach towards proactive student and family engagement.”
Olatunji, a Providence Public Schools alumna, said she hopes truancy proceedings do not return, noting they can disproportionately punish students of color. More guidance counselors would be more appropriate, she said.
“Schools should be investing in more reliable mental supports,” she said. “If that was already done, then we wouldn’t see this” level of absenteeism, she said.
Olatunji said based on the experiences of the teens she works with, she’s surprised the numbers aren’t even higher.
“I just think of a regular year without a pandemic and all of the things that our youth unfortunately have to learn through,” she said. “The fact that they were still able to maintain a semblance of attendance is shocking to me.”
And she’s concerned about the long-term effects of so much missed learning.
“Unfortunately, this is going to lead to more touch points with law enforcement,” Olatunji added. “This is going to lead to probably a higher risk of dropout.”
This summer could be key in getting students back on track. The school district is reinventing the traditional idea of summer school, rebranding the program as Summer Learning & Fun, with four half-days a week of activities and learning. There are already 1,800 students signed up, Lucas said.
The program will include “targeted supports for students, wraparound social-emotional learning, and also filling in any gaps they might have missed during this current school year,” Bradford said.
While all students are eligible to attend, the district targeted communication to the chronically absent and multilingual learners.
Nonprofits and city recreation centers are holding summer programming in person again, as well, offering a variety of options to get youth connected to their peers.
“I think this is the first summer where I’ve seen so many people sign up for things,” Olatunji said. “I’m talking to my youth and they’re like, ‘I’m doing this and I’m doing that.'”
And there’s a major push to get students back to school in the fall. The VLA will no longer exist — notwithstanding some individual exceptions for students with health problems — and the goal is to be 100% in person.
Chronic absenteeism was a problem in Providence schools before the pandemic, as detailed in the Johns Hopkins report that came out in 2019. When the state took control of the district under former Gov. Gina Raimondo, a goal was set to get chronic absenteeism down to 10% of students by the 2024-25 school year.
“There is a real need for us to return to that connected, face-to-face space,” Bradford said. “We want school to be exciting and to really draw students in. Not because of compliance or compulsory reasons, but because it’s a safe and happy learning environment for them.”