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Count day goes virtual for many Michigan schools. The shift isn’t easy.

Students at Denver’s Noel Community Arts School work on laptops.

Michigan schools must track the various pathways students and teachers engage during online learning, whether it’s through text, phone, email or a video conferencing platform.

Nathan Armes/Chalkbeat

This year’s count day — usually crucial to a school district’s bottom line — could be an administrative headache for many Michigan schools. 

Thousands of students are learning at home or in person, making it harder to tally student attendance all at the same time. 

Wednesday is the first of two count days, one in October, the other in February, for over 800 Michigan districts and charter schools. Schools are tallying attendance for that day, which will then be used to calculate their district’s enrollment. The state doles out funds based on that count. Schools may also add students who attend within a certain period after count day if specific requirements are met. 

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many school districts to offer remote as well as face-to-face instruction. In the Detroit school district, about 75% of students are learning only online, while 25% are in classrooms. Tallying virtual student attendance is a complicated process. 

While Michigan has made allowances in counting this year, schools see every student as critical to their budgets. Districts lose state funds for every uncounted student. Last school year, the Detroit district received $8,142 per student from the state.

In virtual learning, schools must track the various pathways students and teachers use to engage. And many students may be attending sporadically because families still face technical challenges. 

As has happened elsewhere, the district’s attendance has fallen this fall. In the first week, about 78% of registered students showed up to classes in person or online, down from 90% during the same period last year. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said that lacking active and consistent attendance is the “greatest threat” to the district outside of student achievement. 

About 51,000 students enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools Community District last year. This fall, about 5.3% of students have not consistently engaged with learning in school. An aggressive door-to-door outreach effort last week contacted about 4,000 homes. 

Cindy Garcia visited more than 30 homes each of the six days she volunteered to reach out to families. Garcia graduated from a district high school several years ago. Last week, she met parents whose nerves were wracked by technology.

“There was a lot of them with internet problems, password problems. Some of their devices were damaged,” she said. 

Garcia offered some technological support and encouraged parents to contact their schools, looking up the school’s main line and sharing that number with parents.

Vitti said the district is trying to meet students and families where they are, with both online and face-to-face learning options.  

While count day normally is critical for district funding, this year Michigan has acknowledged the difficulty of engaging students and counting them. The state will calculate about 75% of a district’s enrollment based on last year’s numbers, and about 25% on this year’s count. 

While the new formula minimizes revenue declines for districts that have lost students, those that gain students in the future also won’t reap as much extra funding for them.

Taking attendance on count day is an involved undertaking. Districts may count:

  • A student attending a live lesson from one of their teachers through an online learning platform or in person
  • A student logging on to an online lesson or activity 
  • A student and a teacher discussing classwork over the phone or via mobile application like Skype 
  • A student and a teacher corresponding on email 

School districts are using various strategies to count students. 

Grand Rapids Public Schools is sending out robocalls, text messages, and email blasts to families to reinforce the importance of its 15,000 students coming to school on Wednesday. 

Dearborn Public Schools’ 21,000 students are starting the year fully remote. Spokesperson David Mustonen said the district is asking schools to schedule live online instruction — rather than independent study — in the mornings this week, to make it easier for the district to tally attendance.

Back in Detroit while canvassing neighborhoods, Garcia also met students just a few credits short of graduating. They weren’t coming to school because they had to work. She pushed them to come back and finish their year. 

“You have to tell them … without an education, you can’t move in this world,” she said. 

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