Absenteeism was a problem for most school systems across the state in 2020 and Bridgeport schools were no different. However, a recent report found the district fared well when it came to reducing the number of COVID cases and quarantines.
The report by the Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership found that the number of COVID cases didn’t exceed six in any given week in the school district with more than 19,000 students.
Bridgeport was one of several public school districts in Connecticut that instituted a mostly hybrid learning environment as its predominant learning model throughout the 2020-21 school year. Other city public school districts such as Hartford and Waterbury toggled between in person classes and either fully remote or hybrid learning models throughout the school year.
When it comes to absenteeism the trends in Bridgeport were similar to those across the state. Statewide 19% of students were considered chronically absent in the 2020-2021 school year, an increase of nearly 7% compared to the 2019-2020 when 12.2% were considered chronically absent.
A student who misses 10% or more of school days in any school year is considered chronically absent, according to the state Education Department. Absences were counted from the start of the 2019 school year in August or September to March 2020 when schools closed and shifted to remote learning as the pandemic began to impact the state.
The percentage of chronically absent students rose by double digits for nearly every large school district, the data showed.
Bridgeport saw an increase of nearly 10% from 19.7% of students considered chronically absent in the 2019-2020 school year compared to 28.9% in the 2020-2021.
Most urban districts saw simulator or greater percentage increases in the number of students considered chronically absent, with New London seeing a 28% increase from 15.4% of students considered chronically absent in 2019-2020 to 43.5% in the 2020-2021 school year.
The percentage of Hartford students considered chronically absent rose from 27.9% in the 2019-2020 school year to 44.4% in the 2020-2021 school year, state data showed.
New Haven schools jumped from 21.1% of students considered chronically absent in the 2019-2020 school year to 34.3% in the 2020-2021 school year.
Overall Bridgeport is faring well in the number of students who test positive for COVID-19 with nearly every city school reporting six or fewer cases at any given time.
That’s good news, according to Ashley Blanchard, director of research and evaluation for RYASAP. “Bridgeport public schools were able to contain and mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Blanchard said. “They did that quite well because they had a strategic plan that focused on a stable hybrid protocol.”
The transition from remote, hybrid and in-person learning were done according to strict guidelines that likely didn’t create a lot of fluctuation which contributes to high rates of spread, Blanchard said.
But students, particularly in the younger grades are still feeling disengaged in school – even after the district switched from remote to hybrid to full-time in-person classes and absenteeism is up district-wide, particularly for students experiencing homeless, she said.
Students in the elementary and middle schools struggled with a sense of belonging in the 2020-2021 school year even after in-person classes resumed, the report said. The sense of trust in teachers also declined in those grades, the data showed.
The goal of the report is to empower parents and point out areas where the school district could make policy changes, Blanchard and RYASAP Executive Director Marc Donald said.
Donald acknowledged that this year’s report was based on data gathered during “unprecedented” times, he said.
His concern is that the report may not capture an accurate sense of how many kids missed opportunities for learning during hybrid and remote classes since they may have been logged on, but not engaged.
“We created a home visit program with Bridgeport schools because we knew attendance was going to be a problem and how do we get past that and reengage the kids,” Donald said. “If you miss 23% of school, kids are saying to themselves how am I going to pass anything?”
The report can be used to look at interventions, he said.
“I’m hoping that it represents some kind of policy shift on how we’re looking at the social emotional health of the kids,” Donald said.
That’s exactly what has been happening with the district hiring more social workers and other support staff who can attend to the emotional needs of the students, said Bridgeport Superintendent of Schools Michael Testani.
“Nationwide learning in urban school districts was impacted more than suburban schools,” Testani said. “We are implementing programs to get kids accelerated and caught up academically.”
The report is one of several tools that the district uses to look at problems and generate policy, Testani said.
“I think it’s an important piece of data to look at,” he said. “But it is one of several sources of data we look at. This is to determine if what they are seeing is mirroring trends in other data.”
It’s been a challenging year, Testani said. Staff shortages particularly in the field of special education and math have left the district struggling to fill vacancies. “The candidates for those jobs just don’t exist,” he said.