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  • John Franco

Enrollment is down and absences are up - here's what educators are doing

Across the state, public school enrollment dropped by an unprecedented 160,000 students this year. Many still enrolled haven't been showing up. Officials say communication and outreach are keys for both the near future and post-pandemic.

Screen capture of the ABC-7 Eyewitness News broadcast

Courtesy of ABC7 Eyewitness News By Brandy Hitt, Lisa Bartley and Grace Manthey May 3, 2021

ANAHEIM, Calif. (KABC) -- On a sunny weekday afternoon at Loara Elementary in Anaheim, third-grade teacher Megan Lee floats around her classroom helping her students with the floor plans of their "dream houses," a math lesson involving crayons and graph paper.

The kids sit at individual, spaced out plastic shield-clad desks, their masked faces bent over their papers as they draw boxes with labels like "game room," and "movie theater."

"I love them so much," Lee said. "They're so sweet online and in person...they're just such a light in this world. And they are the next generation growing up."

"You know, it's just such a joy to be teaching them," she added, laughing as she said she was starting to tear up.

Levi Leyva is one of Lee's students. Levi's father works in construction and his mother is a medical assistant at an imaging center. Both were lucky enough to keep their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, but couldn't work from home to help their son with his online school work.

"With the pandemic, his education definitely took a hit because we couldn't be there," said Levi's father, Guillermo Leyva.

When Leyva and his wife heard their son had been missing a lot of school, they were able to cut down on some work hours to be with Levi and help him catch up.

"The school was very supportive. They answered all of our questions, they taught us how to use the system and the platforms, and now he's doing good," said Leyva.

Lee said once she was able to communicate with Levi's parents about how her and the school could be a support system for the Leyva family, Levi became what she calls a "success story."

"Seeing him in person on the days that he is here, he is confident. And he shows that, you know, he's willing to learn and he's willing to just want to be here and want to be the success story that he is," Lee said.

Increasing chronic absenteeism and decreasing enrollment

According to data from School Innovations and Achievement, a company that offers software and services to schools aimed at improving attendance, chronic absence rates increased by 39% from March 2020 to March 2021 across SI&A's 33 California school district partners in 18 counties. SI&A defines chronic absenteeism as missing more than 10% of the school year.

Hispanic and Black students had the highest rates of chronic absenteeism in March 2021, according to SI&A's numbers, which were presented at a State Attendance Review Board meeting in April. Latino students' chronic absenteeism rates were at nearly 21% and Black students at 30%. White students, for comparison, had chronic absenteeism rates of just about 12%.

"There's always been gaps and divides in education, the achievement gap attendance, gap, access gaps, income gaps, right?" said Erica Peterson, the National Education Manager at SI&A.

"So, what has happened with school closures in the pandemic, and sort of this immediate shutdown in schools is it's just shined a light and exacerbated." Peterson said.

There have been multiple struggles related to attendance during the pandemic, said SI&A Operations Manager Brenda Tapp. Not only are there barriers like what Levi Leyva's family went through, with both parents working, but there are digital divide problems, a lack of infrastructure to address huge absence increases and even different definitions of attendance and participation.

"There's many, many barriers and multiple barriers that could apply to one student. There's a lot of challenges for our kids this year," Tapp said.

But attendance isn't the only thing plaguing California schools in the COVID-19 era. Many parents chose not enroll their student at all.

Across the state, public school enrollment dropped an unprecedented 2.6% between the 2019-2020 and the 2020-2021 school years. In past years, changes in enrollment have normally been less than 1%.