Dennis Lowe has knocked on a lot of doors in the last few weeks to check on the students he normally sees in his job as a school resource officer in Westbrook.

Some families greet him wearing masks and gloves and some are wary of an officer showing up at their front door. But many are grateful. Their children are happy to see the familiar face who normally greets them at school.

As one of the few school staff members in Westbrook still having in-person interactions with students, Lowe is charged with everything from delivering technology and gift cards for groceries to checking in on the health and well-being of students who aren’t engaging in at-home learning. He tries to get an understanding of what families need and relay it back to teachers and administrators.

“I say, ‘Hey I know you’re not interacting,'” Lowe said. “‘Let’s try to make that better. Let’s try to make that happen.'”

With most schools around Maine entering their fifth or sixth week of closures because of coronavirus, it has become more difficult for districts to check on students’ well-being or know if they’re attending class. In the first few weeks of the closures, schools worried about meeting their students’ immediate needs, making sure they had adequate access to food and technology for at-home learning.

Those things are still concerns, and as districts develop clearer pictures of who’s participating in school remotely, they’re using it to guide their outreach.

“I think (engagement) is kind of the most urgent concern on people’s minds,” said Portland Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend. “We don’t have eyes on them on a daily basis. It’s just wondering where folks are at and how they’re doing.”

Without any uniform statewide requirements for how remote learning should look, school districts have developed their own plans and expectations for students. Most have taken into account the fact that school closures are a hardship and students are likely having to deal with additional stresses, like the need to care for siblings or accommodate a parent’s work schedule.

The Maine Department of Education isn’t tracking participation or attendance during remote learning, and student activity and engagement varies widely.

Attendance is no longer a roll-call taken at the start of the day, but instead is based on teacher check-ins, log-ins to online platforms or work handed in. Sometimes it’s done on a daily basis and sometimes over the course of the week.

“We’re asking schools to try and connect and engage with each of their students, and we know that they’re doing that,” said Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the department. She said that the department is trying to be mindful of the myriad challenges districts and families are facing, and that parents shouldn’t worry about their children not being prepared for the next grade.

“This is something happening across our country,” Deveaux said. “We need to take a moment and know it is OK and that students in Maine are not falling behind students in Montana because we are all in the same situation.”

School districts nationally have reported struggles in getting students to participate in remote learning, especially in areas with high numbers of low-income students or where there is a lack of access to technology.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second largest district, for instance, reported more than 15,000 high school students were not connecting with their schools at all in the initial weeks of remote learning, though that number has since been reduced to less than 3,000.

In Portland Public Schools, Maine’s largest district, with 6,750 students, attendance for the first four weeks of remote learning was 91 percent, though that number doesn’t capture the full extent of student engagement, which is believed to be lower, Townsend said.

Average daily in-school attendance over the same period of time last year was 94 percent. But as with regular school, a student’s check-in with a teacher doesn’t necessarily mean they’re learning and doing all their work remotely.

“Just because a kid shows up at school and gets marked present in terms of attendance, they might not routinely turn in their work,’ Townsend said. “I think we’ve seen some of those same patterns and we’ve seen some instances where, though fewer and further in between, this has provided an avenue for students to be more engaged.”

In Westbrook, Superintendent Peter Lancia said about 85 percent of students are participating in distance learning, which is slightly less than regular attendance, which would be around 90 percent or a little higher. Still, Lancia said he is pleasantly surprised by the participation rates and expected more of a struggle with the transition to online learning.

“I think we’ve had some great commitment and buy-in from staff,” he said. “The staff embraced this kind of instruction pretty quickly and found engaging ways to work with kids at a distance. And I think the students are really committed to school. They miss school a lot.”

Some rural school districts, meanwhile, have continued to struggle with access to technology and internet for their students.

“Even with a hot spot, some of our students may have to drive to the end of their road, for example, to get service, so it’s challenging,” said Kelly MacFadyen, superintendent in Guilford-based School Administrative District 4. The Maine Department of Education estimates 18 percent of students in Piscataquis County, where the district is located, don’t have home broadband.

For the first three quarters of the school year, SAD 4’s daily attendance rate was 94 percent. Participation with remote learning is around 80 percent for elementary school students and between 60 to 70 percent for high school students.

“We are remote and we do have a higher rate of poverty than some of the other counties,” MacFadyen said. “The schools are very important to some of our students. We don’t have a lot of resources like the YMCA or Boys & Girls Club. The school is the hub for the student population and so as administrators we are really trying to find ways to stay connected.”

In Madison-based School Administrative District 59, Superintendent Bonnie Levesque said remote learning has been primarily packet-based because so many students lack internet access. Levesque said she has not asked staff for specific data, but principals have reported successful efforts to distribute and collect packets of work.

“We are sending home more than 600 packets and parents are picking up and returning all but a handful that require personal delivery with meals,” Levesque said in an email. “Students are keeping learning logs, teachers are responding to the logs, and making phone calls each week to check in with the students and offer assistance if needed.”

Districts large and small are grappling with how to keep students connected at a time when public health guidance calls for people to physically isolate to prevent the spread of disease.

In Portland, Townsend said there have been students with whom it has been harder to connect remotely, including English language learners; students with behavioral health needs; and families with working parents whose children have had to take on added responsibilities.

Monique Mutumwinka, a parent and community specialist who works with multilingual families in the district, said some families initially struggled because they didn’t have laptops or hot spots. Sometimes they ran into technical difficulties, like parents forgetting the password for their student to log on.

But things have gotten easier as remote learning has continued. Multilingual specialists have offered over-the-phone technical support, sometimes late at night when parents get home from work, and have been busy translating documents into a dozen different languages.

“For now, I can say we’re doing better than before,” Mutumwinka said. “Before we were in the beginning of a crisis for everyone. Now I think the district has done a lot. We have helped a lot of students we know have some challenges.”

In other districts teachers and staff are making phone calls, sending emails and postcards and using social media to check on students. Some are using school resource officers or a handful of select staff to visit homes if they see a student is consistently not participating.

In Old Orchard Beach-based Regional School Unit 23, a district that struggles with a 26 percent in-school absenteeism rate, daily participation rates in the district range from 70 to 86 percent depending on grade level.

Elizabeth Nason, director of school counseling at Old Orchard Beach High School, said there are few if any students the district has not been able to contact, even if they’re not participating in their schoolwork.

“We have kids who are chronically absent and we can always reach them,” Nason said. “We work to have good relationships with the students and families and that work continues. You do see the value of it with bigger things happening in the world. I think that’s kind of a new wrinkle in it.”

While Nason is used to picking up on the body language of students – the way they interact with others in the cafeteria or carry themselves down the hallway – she said counselors have had to rely instead on phone calls and video chats. Students have also been reaching out to their teachers and counselors.

“I do know kids value our school,” Nason said. “And more and more I’m hearing from them, ‘I didn’t realize how much I loved school.'”

In North Berwick-based School Administrative District 60, Superintendent Steve Connolly said 99 percent of students have been in touch with the district and participated in remote learning. Participation rates on a daily basis are around 86 or 87 percent.

Connolly fears those numbers could drop off, though, as enthusiasm for remote learning wanes. As a result the district has shortened its April break to a four-day long weekend. And even while most families are in contact with their schools, Connolly said he worries about a small number of 20 or fewer students the district has not heard from at all.

McFadyen, the superintendent in Guilford, said she’s also concerned about participation declining as the semester wears on. Adapting to remote learning required a steep learning curve that has drained teachers and students.

While communication is strong between schools and families, technology remains scarce. Some parents are working overtime at a nearby facility that produces swabs for virus test kits. Others have been laid off.

“The longer we go the harder it is to keep students engaged,” MacFadyen said.

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