Data shows attendance and learning disparities have increased during distance learning

Disparities among students have widened after nearly a year of distance learning, new data from San Francisco Unified School District...

Disparities among students have widened after nearly a year of distance learning, new data from San Francisco Unified School District shows.

Attendance held steady overall across the district at 95 percent between fall 2019 and fall 2020, but dropped from 89 percent to 85 percent among Black students, 90 percent to 87 percent among Pacific Islander students, and 91 percent to 88 percent among homeless students. The same groups each saw a 1-2 percent attendance decline from fall 2018 to fall 2019, even before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

SFUSD identified 910 students as needing “re-engagement” due to having less than 40 percent attendance, as required under state law around distance learning. Half of those disengaged students last semester were Latino, a quarter were Black, 32 percent were English learners, and 30 percent needed special education. High school students accounted for 63 percent.

Homeless students made up 16 percent of disengaged students and 70 percent were socioeconomically disadvantaged.

“This is a top priority,” said School Board member Jenny Lam. “Anytime our students are disengaging from their learning, it’s something I take seriously and we must be able to address them proactively. It’s not just a local issue, it’s going to be something we grappled with as a nation, too.”

While overall reading and math proficiency increased during the year, students facing more significant impacts from the pandemic were less likely to be included in the data. The results reflected a nationwide trend, according to the report.

Learning analysis found that middle and high school students actually gained more than anticipated according to past trends, but elementary school students suffered learning loss. Black and Pacific Islander students in high school showed the most learning loss, which also matched national trends.

“We are concerned the gap has widened, especially in elementary schools,” said SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick. “We have been working to improve supports and services for students, as well as to improve the distance learning experience while planning for in-person learning. But we know remote doesn’t replace in-person when it comes to serving our students. We want to return to sites as quickly as possible.”

Staff said last week that a big proposal about learning recovery is underway while funding specific to the effort is part of the state budget process. A comprehensive literacy strategy is crucial before it’s too late, said Lam and first-grade teacher Jeremiah Jeffries.

“Literacy is the foundation for all other learning and even math in the age of common core, we need to do everything we can to support our students in achieving in this area,” Jeffries said in an email. “As students became more reliant on their adult supports at home they had less access to other caring adults in their lives. This is one of the greatest losses due to the pandemic.”

School Board member Matt Alexander said the fact that 88 percent of homeless students are attending class during the public health crisis is better than he expected.

“Obviously, there’s cause for concern,” Alexander said. “I think they are actually not as bad as they could have been. The drop is actually really small, maybe due to the amazing work at the community hubs.”

When it comes to recouping learning loss, Alexander feels it’s important to have as many students back on campus in some capacity as soon as possible. That includes a structure for middle and high school students, who the district said last week are unlikely to return this semester.

If the district cannot reopen classrooms for middle and high school students, their campuses should at least be activated in a way to provide tutoring or other kinds of support, Alexander said. It would also help troubleshoot the fall 2021 semester, he added.

Should indicators be met, SFUSD currently plans to bring back its youngest students and those with disabilities by March 25, two months after its original target return date. Disengaged students of all grades are included in later rounds of priority groups to return to the classroom.

The district must still find a new testing provider after Curative results were deemed risky and may now have to regularly test students. Negotiations with unions are still ongoing.

San Francisco remains in the state’s most restrictive purple tier as of Monday but lifted several restrictions, including on outdoor dining, last Thursday.