WHEN FALL RIVER teen David Almond, who was under Department of Children and Families supervision, was found dead, allegedly due to abuse and neglect by his father and girlfriend, one question raised was whether state officials were taking sufficient steps to monitor whether the most at-risk students were actually attending school during the pandemic. Almond, who was signed up for remote learning with the Fall River public schools, never attended class and his caregivers avoided the school’s attempts to reach out.
A budget amendment sponsored in response to the tragedy required the state to report on school attendance for students under the supervision of the Department of Children and Families, or DCF.
The first version of that report, filed Tuesday, puts some initial figures on what percentage of DCF-involved students attended school last year.
According to the report, DCF-involved students who had in-person school attended 93 percent of the time, while DCF-involved students with remote school attended 88 percent of the time. (The data is based on how instruction is provided each day, so in a hybrid model, students would count as in-person whenever they were in school for part of a day.)
Overall, school attendance rates for this population were 90 percent, a drop from 93 percent during the same time period the previous year.
Statewide among all students, the attendance rate was 94 percent last year – although the statewide data reflects March 1 enrollment figures, while the DCF data was current as of October 1.
Among DCF-involved students, 43 percent of instruction was in person and 55 percent was remote, with the mode of learning unknown for the others.
Based on the report, there did not appear to be major racial disparities, other than that Asian and Native American DCF-involved children attended in-person school at the highest rates. There were not major differences between special education students and non-special education students. For remote learning, attendance rates were highest among elementary school students (92 percent) and lowest in high school (85 percent), while attendance was more consistent between grade levels for in-person education.
By far, the students least likely to be attending school were those in the STARR program, part of the DCF system that provides short-term residential placements of up to 45 days for children who need stabilization services like individual or family therapy before they can be reunited with their families. Those children attended in-person school 86 percent of the time and remote learning just 71 percent of the time.
The data includes around 5,200 students in DCF custody but excludes another 1,500 children whose names and birthdates could not be easily matched with Department of Elementary and Secondary Education records.
A spokesperson for DESE said the agency has focused on ensuring all students were engaged in school, regardless of DCF status. That meant tracking students who were learning remotely and ultimately bringing all students back in person. State regulations specify that districts using remote learning must have a system for tracking attendance and participation, and teachers and administrators must regularly communicate with students and their parents or guardians.
Rep. Michael Finn, a West Springfield Democrat who co-chairs the Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, said the numbers are generally positive, but still show that there are a significant number of students who are not having their needs met. He said he hopes it will be easier to track students and get them services next fall, when all kids are back in school in-person full-time. “Until we get to 100 percent, we have a long way to go,” Finn said.