Digital divide: Distance learning attendance rates differ by ethnicity, data shows

Data from multiple Bay Area school districts show greater increases in absences during distance learning for some ethnic groups more than others.
SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- While many Bay Area school districts have worked hard to close the digital divide, the ABC7 News I-TEAM found a gap still exists in distance learning when it comes to who is attending class and who is not.

Every weekday, thousands of Bay Area students log into their classrooms.

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"And it's almost like we transformed under COVID what does it mean to make sure a child has basic access to education," said Hedy Chang, President and Founder of Attendance Works.

Attendance Works is an organization whose mission includes reducing chronic absence.

It used to be making sure you got to school and had the right supplies. Now it's having the right device, connectivity, bandwidth and a safe, quiet space to learn uninterrupted.

"And not everyone is living in those kinds of housing conditions," said Chang.

"For one group of kids, the kids who have access to technology, showing up to school is much easier than before. For another group of kids it's much harder because they don't have the technology, the internet and so absences are going to be much more concentrated in those populations," said Chang.

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Data from San Francisco Unified School District, Oakland Unified School District and San Mateo Union High School District shows greater increases in absences during distance learning for some ethnic groups more than others.

In San Mateo Union High School District, absences for Pacific Islander students increased nearly 16% this year. Absences for Hispanic students increased nearly 7%.

The district says these groups have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. High school students in these groups are more likely to be taking care of younger siblings or working to help support their families.

"You know something has to give and one of the things that gives is being online during the school day," said Kevin Skelly, Superintendent San Mateo Union High School District.

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Skelly says outreach workers are focused on increasing student engagement.

"Visiting homes, talking to students, figuring out what we can do to help," said Skelly.

A similar picture emerges in Oakland, where absences by Pacific Islander students are up 7% as compared to last school year.
OUSD tells the I-TEAM it's been more difficult to reach this group of students during distance learning for the same reasons as in San Mateo; students taking care of smaller siblings or working to help support their families.

RELATED: Oakland teachers face challenges as schools enter critical learning phase due to COVID-19 pandemic

OUSD has contracted additional services this year to conduct outreach to all Pacific Islander families.

In San Francisco, attendance rates have decreased more for African American students and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students than they have for other ethnic groups.

Attendance for African American students is down nearly 6.5% and attendance for native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students is down more than 6%.

SFUSD says in partnership with UC Berkeley it is engaged in a research project to reduce inequalities in chronic absenteeism.

Take a look at all of ABC7's Building a Better Bay Area stories and videos here.

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