Absences growing among Amherst’s low-income, minority students

  • Amherst Regional High School FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/23/2020 8:29:11 PM
Modified: 11/23/2020 8:28:51 PM

AMHERST — An increase in student absences during distance learning is prompting school officials in Amherst to take a series of steps aimed at ensuring all families are receiving equitable access to education.

Superintendent Michael Morris informed the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees, at a joint Nov. 17 meeting, that teachers, principals and administrators are focused on making sure students are attending online instruction, and that efforts are being made to improve outcomes.

“Ethically and morally, we feel our job as educators is that every student is reached, every student is engaged and every student is learning,” Morris said.

Using a supportive method rather than disciplinary approach, Morris said the steps taken so far have included individualized outreach, such as phone calls and meetings, individualized schedules for students, regular check-ins and enhanced technology support. Each school will also have a School Attendance Task Force and virtual learning centers, Morris said.

Amherst, Pelham and the regional schools have offered mostly remote instruction during the fall semester, with some special populations and the district’s youngest students in classrooms for a short period of time in October.

Morris said there has been a disproportionately high absence rate by those students in the free lunch program, as well as among students self-identifying as English language learners, Latino, Black and African American.

“This is a huge cause of concern for us,” Morris said.

Students receiving free lunch, who make up 33.7% of the school population, have totaled 61.89% of recorded absences. That is a contrast from the spring, when the schools first went to remote learning at the initial stages of the pandemic, and those students made up 34.6% of the population while accounting for 43.89% of recorded absences.

English language learners also have become more likely to be absent. These students represent 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.

Latinos, who formed 17.3% of the student body in spring and 17.84% of absences, now are 17.07% of all students, but their absences have risen to 28.71%. African Americans, 9.27% of the student body both in spring and fall, accounted for just 8.48% of absences in the spring, rising to 13.99% of absences this fall.

Morris said the statistics tell school officials that some students are not benefiting from the approach the district is using for remote learning, and that the trends are not positive for historically underserved populations.

School Committee member Peter Demling said the data is “extreme,” especially for the students receiving free lunches, and that every “achievement gap” subgroup, except special education students, and almost all students and families who are underserved by society, are disproportionately missing classes.




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