Taking attendance was once as easy as glancing across a classroom and noting which desks were empty. But that was in a pre-pandemic school year.

Now, for many metro-area students, showing up to class means logging into a school-provided iPad. In Anoka-Hennepin schools, teachers host a daily video call to take roll of students in remote learning. Rather than counting desks, they count the faces on the screen.

“We were really faced with disrupting what were longstanding attendance practices and having to reinvent them on the fly,” Joel VerDuin, chief technology and information officer for Anoka-Hennepin schools, said of the attendance-tallying strategy launched this year.

Accurately counting students is a prime concern for school officials — one that goes well beyond determining who is skipping class on a given day — and it’s particularly tough this year when the pandemic has prevented many students from setting foot in a classroom. Districts are required to report enrollment data to the state each October, and those numbers help determine school funding from the state, generally around $6,600 per student.

The data also drive districts’ projections and can help determine bond ratings, said Stacey Gray Akyea, the director of St. Paul Public Schools’ department of research, evaluation and assessment.

“Those numbers are really the foundation for how the district’s resources are organized,” Akyea said.

The Minnesota Department of Education requires attendance to be taken and recorded at least once a day based on a teacher’s direct interaction with a student. Individual districts must then determine what constitutes that interaction and how to define a students’ presence in school during distance learning.

So far, for Anoka-Hennepin, the daily online check-in has cut down on the number of students who staff have to track down or mark absent, VerDuin said.

Attendance-taking policies have always varied from school to school across the state, said Wendy Hatch, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Education. Those differences are even greater this year as districts operate across different learning models.

“But how that gets translated into enrollment data and comes into our system is still the same,” she said.

The department provided guidance for districts and offered a list of ways to take attendance for remote learners this year. Suggestions included having students participate in a video call or live virtual instruction to be considered “in class” for the day. Completed and turned-in assignments could also count as proof of attendance.

In St. Paul schools, students have to log into their district-provided iPad and check in to their distance learning each school day. A parent or teacher can also check a student in.

If a student hasn’t logged in by 6:30 p.m., the family gets a robocall reminder. District staff can also check to see whether the student’s iPad has been used or if they have submitted any work through the school’s learning platform.

The methodology of counting students had to change this year, but Akyea said the system worked well. By the end of the first week of school, some St. Paul schools reported 95% of their students had successfully checked themselves in.

“In one way, distance learning actually helped us verify enrollment data because we were able to see students checking in,” Akyea said.

Staying connected

The hybrid model learning model, with a mix of distance learning days and days with in-person instruction, has its own attendance challenges that some schools are still working to address.

Anoka-Hennepin staff members are trying to find a way to count a student who logs into a distance learning platform on a day they were expected to be in the school building.

“How do you deal with a student who is ‘present’ but not where they were supposed to be?” VerDuin said.

The biggest challenge for the Osseo district has been determining a way to accommodate and collect attendance for students who have to quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure.

“Attendance is really clear cut when everyone can be in front of the teacher in a classroom,” said Anthony Padrnos, the district’s director of technology. “But there’s some tricky nuance with the hybrid model.”

School leaders say the key to taking accurate attendance this year is communicating and building relationships with families, something that’s become crucial to many aspects of education in a pandemic. Parents need to know how attendance will be taken and schools need to know about families facing technology issues or circumstances that would affect their students’ attendance.

“We actually built communication with families and teachers into our methodology [for enrollment data] this year,” Akyea said. “A lot of resources went toward reaching out to families to not only verify enrollment but to make sure students had what they needed to begin the year.”

The way VerDuin sees it, connecting with families helps ensure more accurate enrollment numbers that can be used to better serve those families for the future.

“Our kids’ connectedness to school has really been challenged this year,” he said. “It’s crucial to be reaching out and know who we need to be reaching.”