State seeks to engage 5,125 students at home, but not in class during pandemic

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 809 views 

More than 5,000 at-home Arkansas public school students have been identified as either not enrolled in virtual classes or enrolled but not logging in. In response, the state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education is contacting them and trying to set up coaching arrangements.

Secretary of Education Johnny Key said Friday (Dec. 11) that 5,125 at-home students have been identified by 108 participating school districts as either “no shows” who never engaged in remote learning or as students who are not logging in to their classes. The state has 262 school districts.

Key made the comments to the Arkansas School Boards Association during its annual conference, which was held virtually this year.

The division has partnered with the Graduation Alliance to create the Engage Arkansas initiative this school year to engage those disengaged students along with others who are struggling as they remain home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students can have access to a coach through the end of the school year who can help them overcome obstacles to remote learning.

As of this past week, the initiative had succeeded in contacting 1,275 of the 5,125 students. Of those, 947 have committed to coaching, while 323 have declined coaching. There was a five-student discrepancy in those numbers and the 1,275 total.

Of the rest, the initiative has attempted to contact 3,806 students and has been unable to contact 45.

The initiative has made 9,022 calls, plus sent text messages and emails.

Among the 1,275 students contacted, more than 95% in grades 6-12 said they did have an adult checking on their progress.

“Families are trying. Families are trying to support their kids. Sometimes they just find it difficult to do that,” Key said.

Eight-seven percent know how to contact their teachers and access assignments, while 97% have access to a computer and 96% have access to the internet. Twenty-four percent of 12th graders said they were responsible for taking care of siblings or other children with their schooling.

The initiative is working directly with the parents in grades K-5. Eighty-four percent said the need for more support in reading and math is the leading barrier in their virtual education. Another 38% of the students struggle with using the computer for learning. On the plus side, 94% know how to contact their teachers, and 86% know how to access their assignments. Also, 94% have access to a computer, and 92% have access to the internet.

Key said more than 70% of the state’s school districts have not had to make districtwide modifications to onsite instruction. Modifications are the result not of large numbers of infections but of large numbers of close contacts resulting in quarantines. He said the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education is working closely with the Department of Health to review the data and is communicating with school superintendents.

After almost all of the state’s public school students were sent home at the end of the last school year, the state created a model where students could study onsite, remotely, or through a blended approach this year. Key said 64% of students this year are onsite, while 22%, or 105,479 students, are studying remotely. Another roughly 14% are engaged in a hybrid model of some kind.

Key said the arrangements were created to give school districts a way to pivot to at-home instruction if necessary because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some patrons will want to continue a blended or remote education, so the state must be ready to continue offering these choices.

“Even if the pandemic has subsided, we expect there will be parents across the state of Arkansas that feel like this is a good option for them. So we have to be prepared for that,” he said.

For the upcoming 2021-22 school year, schools must offer 178 days of instruction under the law, but they will be able to continue to offer blended or remote instruction programs as they did this year.

Key said six aspects of digital programs are “non-negotiables.” The program must be planned with purpose; it must have high-quality content and instruction; students and teachers must have equity of access; teachers, students and parents must be offered support; there must be clear expectations, policies and guidelines; and school districts must plan for regular communication and interaction.

Key said the state will conduct statewide assessments of students in the spring of 2021 using the ACT Aspire test. Those tests were cancelled in the spring. However, the state needs to know how students are performing and how districts are meeting their needs. Arkansas must report its progress toward achieving long-term goals to the federal government under the Every Student Succeeds Act. The U.S. Department of Education has not granted a waiver for reporting requirements, though it has said it will work with states on an individual basis.

Key said the state receives more than $371 million in federal funding through the Every Student Succeeds Act process that “hinges” on its reporting of the data.