As California figures out how to transition from distance learning to safely reopening schools, we must also figure out how to provide the extra support that kids need to recover, catch up academically, and thrive. Researchers are already seeing widespread mental health needs and estimate that a majority of CA public school students will need to catch up by an extra year or more.[1] In this blog series, you will learn how the pandemic is affecting all students and the impact of learning loss on students of color, English learners and students with disabilities. You will also learn about effective solutions to reverse learning loss. The actions we take now will have a major impact on our children’s futures.


Exhausted Teenage Indian Girl at Laptop


When students disengage, they are more absent, less focused, and become frustrated with school. Students are considered chronically absent when they miss 10% or more of school – about 15 days in a year or two days every month.


Students are missing school at alarming rates

An alarming number of children have been missing out on school over the past year. When students disengage, they are more absent, less focused, and become frustrated with school. Students are considered chronically absent when they miss 10% or more of school – about 15 days in a year or two days every month.

Because of limited data, we still do not yet know exactly how many students have disengaged, missed school, or dropped out of school. But, the early data is alarming. Here is summary of the data we know so far:

  • Up to 1.5 million students in California are disconnected from school because they lack reliable internet, a computer, or both.[2] One in four students in California lack adequate internet at home and 17% do not have a computer. When students have to learn online from home, access to the internet and a computer is essential. The digital divide has prevented many students from accessing the education they deserve.
  • Young students are almost twice as likely to be chronically absent compared to last year. In several districts across California, nearly one in five elementary (18%) students have missed 10% of school or more this past year.[3] In 2018-19, nine percent students were chronically absent.
  • Black and Latino students are disengaging from school at much higher rates. Three in 10 Black (29%) and two in 10 Latino (20%) students were chronically absent this past year. This is compared to only one in 10 White students (11%) who were chronically absent.[4] The gap between students of color and White students widened since 2018-19.
  • English learners, students with special needs, foster youth, and students experiencing homelessness are missing school at higher rates. Researchers estimate that across the U.S., almost 3 million of the most marginalized students have disengaged from school.[5] In Los Angeles Unified, less than half of English learners and half of students with special needs in middle and high school participated in distance learning each week.
  • Even when students of color do “attend” their online classes, many are not actively engaging. According to nationwide data from spring 2020, only 60% of low-income students were regularly participating online compared to 90% of high-income students.[6] In Los Angeles Unified, where the majority of students are low-income or students of color, more than one-third of middle and high school students were disengaged daily in fall 2020.

Nearly One in Five Elementary Students Missed a Tenth of School

Missing school increases the risk that a student will drop out.

When students miss too much school, they are more likely to fall behind, fail courses, and drop out of school. Students who disengage are at high risk of dropping out. Most students who drop out do not return to school. When a student disengages, they are more absent, less focused, do not participate, misbehave, and do not complete their assignments.[7]

Missing out on too much school in early grades is particularly damaging. When K-1 students miss too much school, they are more likely to struggle with reading and learning in later grades. They are also more likely to be held back and continue disengaging from school.[8]

Disengaged Students More Likely to Drop Out

Few students who drop out come back

By middle and high school, students who are missing school are failing courses and falling behind on credits, making it difficult to catch up. Students who are chronically absent in middle grades are very likely to be off-track in ninth grade.[9] The long-term consequences are grave; only about 30% of students who drop out will re-enroll in school. Of those that re-enroll, a mere 18% end up graduating from high school.[10]

Why are students of color disengaging from school?

Students of color are more likely to be disconnected because of less access to technology and less time with their teachers and peers. Up to 1.5 million California students are disconnected from school because they do not have access to reliable internet, a computer, or both. One in four K-12 students do not have reliable internet access and 17% do not have a computer.[11] These gaps are larger for low-income students and Black, Latino, and Native American students. This makes it nearly impossible for them to actively engage in distance learning.

Up to One and a Half Million Disconnected Students

As we discussed in a previous blog post, students of color are also less likely to have access to their teachers and peers during distance learning. In spring 2020, only 60% of low-income students were regularly participating online compared to 90% of high-income students across the nation.[12] In Los Angeles Unified, where the majority of students are low-income or students of color, more than one-third of middle and high school students were disengaged daily in fall 2020. This means over 13,000 middle and high school students did not engage in any online coursework.[13] When students feel disconnected from their teachers and peers, they are more likely to disengage.[14]

Chronic absenteeism among students of color was a major issue in California even before the pandemic. In 2018-19, Black, Latino, Pacific Islander, and Native American students had the highest rates of chronic absenteeism. One in five Black students were chronically absent.[15] When students miss school, they miss out on valuable learning time and connection with their peers. Research has shown that every missed day of school increases a student’s likelihood of dropping out.

Low-Income Students Less Likely to Engage Online


Over the past year, we’ve heard hundreds of parents across California share how the pandemic and distance learning are affecting their children’s present and potentially their future. Learn more about what parents are pushing legislators to prioritize here.


Learning has become inaccessible for students with special needs.

Online learning is even more difficult to access for students with special needs. Students with special needs are struggling to participate online without assistive technology.[16] Many online platforms are not compatible with assistive technology. For example, the small display screens in Zoom make it difficult for deaf and hard-of-hearing students to see and understand signs.[17]

As schools reopen, district and school leaders must develop clear plans for students that have disengaged from school. In an upcoming blog, we will cover the impact of learning loss on students with special needs.

Take Action Now

CA legislators are making major decisions right now about the state budget for next school year. In response, Innovate parent leaders from across the state are raising their voices and meeting with decision-makers to tell them we must invest more into children’s mental health and academic recovery from COVID-19.

 


[1] McKinsey & Company, COVID-19 and learning loss—disparities grow and students need help, December 2020.
[2] Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group, Closing the K-12 digital divide in the age of distance learning, 2020.
[3] School Innovations & Achievement (SI&A), Preliminary chronic absence patterns and trends analysis, November 2020.
[4] School Innovations & Achievement (SI&A), 2-3.
[5] Hailly Korman et al., Missing in the margins: Estimating the scale of the COVID-19 attendance crisis, Bellwether Education Partners, October 21, 2020.
[6] McKinsey & Company, COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime, June 1, 2020.
[7] Robert Balfanz, Liza Herzog, and Douglas J. Mac Iver, “Preventing student disengagement and keeping students on the graduation path in urban middle-grades schools: Early identification and effective interventions.” Educational Psychologist 42, no. 4 (2007): 223-235.
[8] Attendance Works and The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, Attendance in the early grades: Why it matters for reading, February 2014.
[9] University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (UChicago CCSR), “4 key findings for high schools from Looking Forward to High School and College”, November 2014.
[10] Bethann Berliner, Vanessa X. Barrat, Anthony B. Fong, and Paul B. Shirk, “Reenrollment of high school dropouts in a large, urban school district.” Issues & Answers 56 (2008): 1-36.
[11] Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group, Closing the K-12 digital divide in the age of distance learning, 2020.
[12] McKinsey & Company, COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime, June 1, 2020.
[13] Great Public Schools Now, Educational recovery now: LA’s children and schools need a comprehensive plan, March 2021.
[14] Child in the City, Why is school connectedness so important?, December 19, 2018.
[15] California Department of Education, Chronic absenteeism rate, California, 2018-19.
[16] Assistive technology helps students who have difficulty speaking, typing, writing, remembering, pointing, seeing, hearing, learning, walking, and many other things.
[17] Faith Hill, The pandemic is a crisis for students with special needs, The Atlantic, April 18, 2020.
 


Innovate Public Schools is a nonprofit community organization that builds the capacity of parents and educators working together to create excellent and equitable public schools.