Student attendance dropped during the period of distance learning according to data from Rochester Public Schools.

The school district released the average number of absences for the months during distance learning, as well as the same data from two random days earlier in the year for comparison.

The district kicked off the new learning model March 15 when RPS Superintendent Michael Muñoz announced that the school district would shut down for eight days to prepare for the possibility of moving to the distance learning model. The change was in accordance with the Minnesota Department of Education to curb the spread of the coronavirus. As it turned out, students never returned to the classrooms for the rest of the year.

Since spring break immediately followed the eight days set aside for planning, the students didn’t actually start doing school from home until April.

At that point, the number of student absences increased substantially. In fact, the number of absences during May was essentially double the sample number picked from before distance learning began.

Muñoz said having a decrease in attendance was one of the consequences of making a major mid-year shift in the way students were learning.

“I think to expect the exact percentage that you would have gotten when we were in-person probably wasn’t realistic,” Muñoz said.

The school provided two random days from November and December to show what the numbers looked like prior to distance learning. On Nov. 12, there were 1,242 absences. On Jan. 15, there were 1,361 absences.

The district also provided attendance data for the two days between Muñoz’s announcement and the time when the eight days of planning began. During those two school days, from March 16-17, the average number of absences was 1,534.

In April, there was an average of 1,914 unexcused daily absences. That number increased to 2,685 during May before dropping slightly to 2,586 during the first week of June.

There are about 18,300 students in the district.

Ultimately, the school district was forgiving of the absences. The Rochester School Board approved grading guidelines near the end of the year that took into account the effect of the pandemic and the switch to distance learning.

For the second semester, secondary students would either receive grades of A, B or No Credit. Students would receive a “no credit” score if they didn’t engage with their classes in any way during distance learning. However, the no credit mark would not affect their GPA or class rank, according to the guidelines.

Muñoz said the number of absences might not be a true reflection of the number of students who were ignoring their work. He said there were some students who interacted with their classes and teachers but never bothered to register their attendance for one reason or another.

A task force is developing plans for the possibility that students will have to continue distance learning during the coming school year. Muñoz said attendance is one of the issues that task force is addressing.

“That’s something this distance learning group is going to have to really work on: how can we make checking in for attendance purposes easier and better for students if we end up doing distance learning this coming school year?” Muñoz said.