Northampton Public Schools flag absences among historically underserved populations during remote learning

  • Data on absences this fall in the Northampton Public Schools.  NORTHAMPTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS

  • Bridge Street School parents wait outside the Northampton elementary for the dismissal of students shortly after noon on Friday, March 13, 2020, at the end of a previously scheduled half day.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/4/2020 2:54:21 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Self-identified Hispanic and Latino students make up 16% of the Northampton Public School district, but this fall, they made up 36% of students who were chronically absent — defined by the district as absent for five or more days in a measured period from Sept. 16 to Nov. 6.

Other groups, such as special education students, English language learners, and economically disadvantaged students also made up a disproportionate share of the chronically absent students this fall while school was conducted remotely.

“Clearly, we are having difficulty engaging historically underserved populations in remote learning in our district,” Northampton Superintendent John Provost wrote in an email. “It’s very concerning to me,” he said over the phone Friday.

English language learners make up 4% of the district’s students and 12% of students who were chronically absent this fall. Economically disadvantaged students — a term defined by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) as those participating in programs such as MassHealth and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — make up 24% of the district and 39% of the chronically absent students.

Two district social workers have been doing outreach to families. “They’ve been making home visits and trying to see what barriers students and families are encountering with remote learning and trying to provide support with that,” Provost said. “Early on, some families were having difficulty with technology and they delivered hot spots and other forms of assistance.”

Attendance data from last year for the same time period (Sept. 16 to Nov. 6) was not immediately available, Provost said, as attendance information is typically annualized. But the district is running a report to try to create a comparable data set, Provost said. Attendance data collected by DESE last school year — data that was cut short after March 2, due to COVID-19 — shows that some of the same student groups had higher than average rates of being chronically absent even before the pandemic. For example, 26.4% of economically disadvantaged students were chronically absent last school year in Northampton, while 13.4% of all students were chronically absent.

Provost said he’s “really hopeful” that “now that we’ve begun our transition to hybrid learning, we’ll be able to re-engage some of those students.” In late November, the district started bringing students in for hybrid learning, beginning with preschool, kindergarten and first grade.

“I was present for the arrival of new students both in group A and group B in our elementary schools this week,” Provost said of the hybrid learners. “There was so much joy, so much joy, among the students, the parents and the faculty who were finally seeing their students in person.”

In Amherst, school officials recently discussed similar trends with absences — there has been a disproportionately high absence rate by students in the free lunch program, as well as among students self-identifying as English language learners, Latino, Black and African American.

English language learners in Amherst, for example, make up 9.3% of students in the district but account for 21.98% of absences. In the spring, they made up 10.21% of students and 12.59% of all absences.

“This is a huge cause of concern for us,” Superintendent Michael Morris said at a Nov. 17 joint meeting of the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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