Online learning might have helped prevent teachers and students from being infected with COVID-19 this past year, but new data show it also might have fueled a rise in failing grades and disengagement from school.
It’s hard to gauge the extent of the disengagement because many districts either aren’t disclosing absentee rates or loosened the standard for what is considered “present.” Although it’s clear that across the state and locally, the switch to virtual school correlated with a drop-off in public school enrollment.
Of the 14 school districts that responded to the Wisconsin State Journal’s request for data, all but one — McFarland — showed an increase in measures of academic failure.
The State Journal in mid-February asked all 16 of the districts completely or predominantly within Dane County to provide data on absenteeism and the number of failing grades passed out to middle- and high-schoolers in the first semesters of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years — prior to and after the COVID-19 shutdown, when public education was almost entirely online.
Fourteen districts eventually responded with at least some of the data. The county’s two largest and most racially and socioeconomically diverse, Madison and Sun Prairie, required the newspaper to file public records requests for the data. To date, they remain unfilled.
The 7,378-student Middleton-Cross Plains district, for example, had 410 middle-schoolers failing at least one class in the fall 2019-20 semester, but 578 in the fall 2020-21 semester. The comparable numbers at the high school level were 156 and 371.
In Deerfield, with about 720 students, 61 failing grades were given to 31 students in grades 7-12 in the 2019-20 semester, and 265 to 83 students in the fall semester 2020.
District officials point to a number of initiatives to help students recover some of those credits and catch up academically, from a wider range of courses over the summer to outreach to disengaged students and the use of diagnostic tests, such as the STAR assessment, to identify and create learning plans for individual students.
But Mount Horeb superintendent Steve Salerno cautioned that it will take time.
“I have communicated with many families who have considerately asked, ‘How will our kids ever catch up?’” he said in an email. “Public education is a resilient business and children even more so. After Hurricane Katrina, educators confronted the same issue. In the years following that terribly tragic event, reams of data promoted one common finding: Remediation is best provided over time, not in one fell swoop.”
Figures for absenteeism were mixed, with three districts reporting increases in chronic absenteeism at some schools and others either reporting similar or lower figures than before the pandemic.
Belleville’s rate of “high-risk absenteeism” — defined by the state Department of Public Instruction as “students with 10 or more absences in the given school year” — fell by more than half from the 2019-20 to current school years, or from 14.7% to 6.3%.
However, “We have been more lenient with attendance this year, not wanting to push the issue if parents say students are ill,” said district administrator Nate Perry. “This year’s truancy numbers will be lower because of that.”
In Madison, students could be marked present simply by exchanging messages with “the homeroom teacher and any specials teacher they are scheduled to receive instruction from that day.” In Verona, “two-way communication” with a teacher of staff had to occur at some time during the 24-hour day when the class occurred for the student to be marked present.
By contrast, the Marshall School District expected students to show up for each online class just as they had to show up for each in-person class pre-pandemic. It saw its rate of chronic absenteeism rise from 7% to 12% from the first semester of the last school year to the first semester of this one.
“The percentage of student participation certainly was decreased during remote teaching and learning,” district administrator Dan Grady said, but he lauded students, families and district staff for largely providing a traditional, rigorous school year online.
Deerfield similarly did not loosen its attendance policy but saw rates of chronic absenteeism fall at the middle and high school levels.
“If students were not online during their first-hour class, our main office secretary called the parent right away,” district administrator Michelle Jensen said in an email. “I think that the ease of getting out of bed, not having to get ready (shower, pick out an outfit, drive to school) made it easy for kids to quickly log on with minutes to spare. I spoke to many of them first semester that shared that they could sleep in until the last minute which they loved.”
Seven school districts in Wisconsin, including three in Dane County — Madison, Sun Prairie and Mount Horeb — dispensed with enforcing state attendance laws altogether. The law identifies actions districts have to take when students are regularly absent without valid excuses.
Madison, the county’s largest district, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on why it sought the waiver.
In a Sept. 28 “situation report” to its school board, Sun Prairie administrators said that while “the district believes that attendance and engagement are a critical component of learning,” it was seeking “flexibility” during the pandemic.
“Since these impacts may result in a student’s decreased ability to attend to and engage with schoolwork, we do not believe that our traditional attendance enforcement and truancy plan is appropriate at this time,” the report said. Sun Prairie is the county’s second-largest district.
Curtis Jones, director of the Socially Responsible Evaluation in Education program at UW-Milwaukee, said it wouldn’t be surprising to see the downsides of online learning, such as more failing grades and absenteeism, fall more on less-privileged students, especially in a state such as Wisconsin with large achievement gaps between white students and students of color.
“It’s really challenging for districts to engage Black students and Black families with educators being mostly white,” said Jones, who also is a parent in the Monona Grove School District and is on a district committee focused on equity.
Take away the in-person opportunities for teachers and these students and families to engage, and it becomes more likely that the students will disengage, he said.
Enrollment in Wisconsin’s public schools has been dropping for years as the population ages and people have fewer children, but that trend accelerated during the year of the pandemic, including in Dane County.
Statewide the decline from 2018 to 2019 was 0.45%, according to Department of Public instruction data. But from 2019 to 2020 it was 2.99%, a reduction of more than 25,000 students. In Dane County, the fastest-growing county in Wisconsin, enrollment was down about 1.1%.
All but two of the county’s districts — Belleville and McFarland — saw decreased enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020.
Belleville’s 1.54% increase was driven by an increase in its kindergarten class from 56 in the fall of 2019 to 81 in the fall of 2020. It was one of five school districts in the county with double-digit increases in kindergarten enrollment even as enrollment in some other grades dropped, and appeared in some cases to be driven by parents’ desire for in-person schooling.
Belleville’s Perry said the district expects a strong kindergarten class next year as well, and pointed to housing growth in the community, but added that “with our PK-2 grades being open since Sept. 8, we did draw in students from other districts that were not in-person to start the year at these grade levels.”
Cambridge Elementary School allowed parents to choose in-person kindergarten beginning Sept. 1. Principal Chris Holt said in an email that kindergarten families recognized “the significance of kindergartners’ attention spans, hands-on learning opportunities, screen time concerns, play-based learning opportunities, etc., as well as how they play a major role in achieving learning targets at the kindergarten level.”
McFarland’s K-12 enrollment boomed this school year by more than 20% — an increase superintendent Andrew Briddell attributed to the increased popularity of its two online charter schools that were in operation years before the pandemic effectively turned all schooling into online schooling.
Private schools in Wisconsin, many of which were quicker to return to in-person schooling, experienced a 2% enrollment decline that was more in line with their decrease from 2018 to 2019, while the number of students identified as home-schooled in 2020 jumped from 17,021 to 26,641.
Jones, of UW-Milwaukee, said it’s clear that some students simply “faded away” — effectively dropped out — during the pandemic.
“You have a lot of disengaged students,” he said. “What are districts doing with these students this semester that they didn’t do last semester?”
MEET MADISON’S TOP SPELLERS OF 2021
Meet Madison's top spellers of 2021
The Madison All-City Spelling Bee has been held every year since 1949. Since 1968, the traveling trophy that goes to the champion’s school has been engraved with the name of that year’s winner:
2020 — Matthew Brock, Toki Middle School
2019 — Maya Jadhav, Eagle School
2018 — Frankie Bautista, Edgewood Campus School
2017 — Martius Bautista, Edgewood Campus School
2016 — Martius Bautista, Edgewood Campus School
2015 — Martius Bautista, Edgewood Campus School
2014 — Martius Bautista, Edgewood Campus School
2013 — Aisha Khan, Spring Harbor Middle School
2012 — Aisha Khan, Spring Harbor Middle School
2011 — Kira Zimmerman, Hamilton Middle School
2010 — Vishal Narayanaswamy, Jefferson Middle School
2009 — Brandon Dumas, Toki Middle School
2008 — Erich Wegenke, Holy Cross Lutheran
2007 — Isabel Jacobson, O’Keeffe Middle School
2006 — Isabel Jacobson, O’Keeffe Middle School
2005 — Isabel Jacobson, O’Keeffe Middle School
2004 — Isabel Jacobson, Marquette Elementary
2003 — Robert Marsland, Holy Family Home Schoolers
2002 — Aileen Wall, Blessed Sacrament
2001 — Andy Trevino, Jefferson Middle School
2000 — Diana Camosy, Eagle School
1999 — Jonathan Blanchard, Spring Harbor Middle School
1998 — Daniella Lisse, Spring Harbor Middle School
1997 — Jenna Kanter, O’Keeffe Middle School
1996 — Susan Moskwa, Cherokee Middle School
1995 — Laura Casey, St. Maria Goretti
1994 — David Byrd-Felker, Jefferson Middle School
1993 — Kyle Konop, Orchard Ridge Middle School
1992 — Anna Stirr, Jefferson Middle School
1991 — Dan Marshall, Gompers Middle School
1990 — Kyle Mothershead, Orchard Ridge Middle School
1989 — Benjamin Schroeder, Eagle School
1988 — Sekar Velu, Muir Elementary
1987 — Ryan Conners, Jefferson Middle School
1986 — Jacqueline Brooks, Orchard Ridge Middle School
1985 — Amit Bhargava, Van Hise Middle School
1984 — Amit Bhargava, Van Hise Middle School
1983 — David Phillips, Thoreau Elementary
1982 — T.J. Holter, Schenk Middle School
1981 — Andrew Kinney, Edgewood Campus School
1980 — Jennifer Nelson, Gompers Middle School
1979 — Steve Prestegard, Schenk Middle School
1978 — Sara Record, Cherokee Middle School
1977 — Steve Prestegard, Schenk Middle School
1976 — Bob Luby, Queen of Peace
1975 — Susan Strasma, Cherokee Middle School
1974 — Roger Inhorn, Jefferson Middle School
1973 — Mary Kay Ellis, Edgewood Campus School
1972 — Kathy Williams, Blessed Sacrament
1971 — Marcia Inhorn, Jefferson Middle School
1970 — James Wald, Cherokee Heights Junior High
1969 — Alan Coffman, Marquette Junior High
1968 — Taddy Kalas, Cherokee Heights Junior High