Educators need a variety of data points to ensure students are set up for success this year. Having accurate attendance data is critical to identify which students are participating in online learning and which are not. However, this information doesn’t get at why. State and district leaders are leveraging new and different sources of data to shed light on the barriers keeping students from accessing online instruction this year.
Internet and device access is a critical factor in students’ ability to participate in online instruction. Prior to the pandemic, most schools did not collect information on students’ at-home technology. Now, education leaders in states like Wisconsin are working with districts to collect this information from families and integrate it into their student information systems. Teachers and school leaders can use this digital equity data to identify gaps in broadband or device access among their students and target supports accordingly.
Beyond technology, students may be facing additional challenges at home. Many families have lost loved ones, and now may be juggling new childcare responsibilities or struggling to make ends meet. To better understand these challenges, state leaders in Nevada are using public information on local COVID-19 infection rates in combination with school accountability designations and social vulnerability index data to identify communities that may have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Using this information, school and district leaders can provide much-needed relief to students and families from those communities.
As state leaders seek to understand the factors influencing attendance, they are also outlining comprehensive strategies for reengaging chronically absent students. Even in the context of online learning, there are proven ways that teachers and school leaders can reduce absenteeism. In the District of Columbia, schools will not only be contacting parents to learn why their student is missing school, but also reaching out to other family members. Understanding what families need through direct conversations with them is a type of data collection. Widening this circle helps to build connections between their students’ home and school lives and ensure they are supported no matter where they are.
By using data in innovative ways, state leaders are taking important steps to understand students’ needs during this unprecedented time and provide them with critical supports. Yet there are still other barriers that may prevent students from receiving full educational experiences. A recent Urban Institute report highlights additional factors that may impact online learning, including linguistic isolation (living in a non-English speaking household), disability status, parent employment in economically vulnerable sectors, having a single parent, and crowded living conditions.
Looking at new and existing data sources will shed light on how these factors are impacting students’ participation in online learning. Integrated data systems allow educators to explore linked data from beyond the education sector. States also have opportunities to expand existing systems; this summer, the Department of Education announced supplemental funding for state agencies to use their state longitudinal data systems to support students during COVID-19. If necessity is the mother of invention, students already have the needs—it’s time for state and district leaders to use new and different sources of data to find solutions for students.
This blog post is also available as a story on Medium.