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About 50 Billings students MIA during remote learning

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About 50 students out of the 2,500 enrolled in remote learning this school year in Billings Public Schools never logged in for virtual school this year, according to district officials. 

How remote learning would work out was one of the largest questions going into this school year for Montana's largest district, which offered either in-person or online-only instruction tracks to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Basic attendance is not the ultimate measure, but it's a starting point for a 10,000-foot review of remote learning. 

“We are doing everything we can to reach out to those families, but that’s concerning,” said district Superintendent Greg Upham. He said the district is evaluating options for trying to approach families at their homes. 

The lion's share of the missing students are in high school, six are in elementary school, and 13 are in middle school.

The problem is not unique to Billings, but there's not a consistent, nationwide accounting of "missing" students. While most Montana schools have tried to offer some kind of return to in-person school, many major cities in the U.S. have gone online-only to begin the school year. 

An issue that could have a wider footprint is remote learning students who are tuned in, but have many absences.

For elementary students, the district has 126 students with between 10 and 19 half-day absences, and another 62 students with more than 20 half-day absences. 

Middle schools had 83 students who had missed eight or more days of school, and high schools had 149 students. 

Unlike last spring, when Upham effectively waived worse grades for students after the abrupt shift to remote learning, students will be evaluated like any other school year, he said. That could include requiring remedial courses or holding students back. 

During the spring period, about 30% of student were "unengaged" with remote learning, Upham has said. 

“It’s about being able to demonstrate proficiency," he said. 

Existing research

How the attendance for remote learning stacks up to attendance during a traditional school year is foggy. 

An ironclad body of pre-pandemic academic research on traditional school models backs up what's intuitively obvious; if kids aren't in school, they can't learn. Missing a few days for an illness or vacation is generally fine, but kids that miss large chunks of school usually learn less, and have worse academic outcomes as they get older. 

It's unclear how that research translates to widespread remote learning. There is research on virtual schools overall performance, and it's not kind.

A report from the University of Colorado Boulder's National Education Policy Center found that almost 300,000 students across the nation were enrolled in online-only schools during the 2017-2018 school year. Those schools tended to have fewer minority or low-income students, and most reported an average graduation rate of about 50%, far below the 84% national average for the same time span.

"Full-time virtual schools and blended learning schools represent promising ideas," the authors of the report wrote. "Unfortunately, they are performing terribly." 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.

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