AUSTIN (KXAN) — Tristin Sullivan considers herself a very involved parent. When her seventh grade son was doing virtual school from home during the fall semester, she educated herself on the online software so she could help the 14-year-old stay on top of his eight courses and class assignments while she was also working from home.

Sullivan said she also required him to do what most of his classmates weren’t doing: turn on his camera during virtual classes so the teacher felt a connection with her students.

Since he returned to his campus at Small Middle School in southwest Austin after winter break, Sullivan said he has been doing much better emotionally, mentally and academically.

But recently, she was shocked to learn her son was marked absent 47 times. Sullivan said the majority of ‘missed classes’ happened when he was back on campus, including the day he was at Small taking the STAAR test.

“I know he was there,” said Sullivan. “Because we drop him off at school and I don’t think he’s ditching classes.”

Sullivan said she called the school attendance clerk, who told her to email every one of his teachers and tell them the dates he was marked absent so they could check for ‘engagement.’ The clerk said she would help, but after a few days of looking into it Sullivan said the clerk could only find proof to correct seven of the absences.

Teachers base attendance off ‘engagement’

Small Middle School principal Matthew Nelson told KXAN that engagement is defined as being in a Zoom room or interacting with the Blend software program students use to complete assignments, which includes submitting exit tickets and Google forms. An exit ticket is a way students provide feedback to the teacher about the class, which can require the child to explain what was covered in the lesson.

“If there is no evidence of engagement or on-campus attendance at the point of posting, then the student should be marked absent,” said Nelson in a written response to KXAN.

Sullivan wonders how teachers can actually prove engagement after the fact. She and her son didn’t realize that once he returned to campus, where he was still taking his classes via computer, that he needed to continue the step of submitting an exit ticket or Google form.

“We’re talking about a teenage boy here, he forgets everything,” said Sullivan. “Anytime he forgot to do any of those things he’s marked absent.”

Marked absent while on campus

She said one of the teachers who frequently marked her son absent is physically on campus with him, but is located in a different room conducting her virtual classes.

“I understand there’s a lot of moving parts and things are very different this year, but this isn’t working,” said Sullivan.

O. Henry Middle School newsletter 05042021
Screenshot from the O. Henry Middle School parent newsletter sent April 25 addressing the attendance issue (AISD)

Sullivan said she is part of a Small Middle School parent Facebook group where another parent shared about the issue. She said the post received around 50 comments from parents saying they were experiencing the same. She said some commented they’d gotten so tired of it they just started ignoring calls and emails about it.

Students of parents at other Austin schools told KXAN’s Erin Cargile it’s a problem, and they, too, have started ignoring the recorded automatic calls, emails and notifications about their children’s absences.

“This is the first time that I’ve personally heard about this,” said Dr. Laura Stout, AISD Associate Superintendent for Secondary Schools. “And I think it’s a problem that we need to resolve.”

The screenshot to the right shows an excerpt from the O. Henry Middle School newsletter sent to parents on April 25 that addressed the absence and attendance issue.

Their campus attendance clerk explained there is a three-day waiting period after a student is marked absent in the Blend program, and once a child notices they were mistakenly marked absent they should reach out to the teacher.

The message said there will be no disciplinary action being taken for the marked absences, but that students should keep up with their assigned work for their grades and credit.

Nelson agreed that attendance mistakes have been a problem at Small Middle School. Even though teachers have been operating this way for nearly an entire school year, he said the process is completely new for his teachers who still have 85% of their students learning remotely.

“While we have a few proven systems we are using in our classrooms, some teachers are still struggling with finding one that works for them,” said Nelson. “We also have cases where students will be in the Zoom room engaging with the teacher and class on the lesson and then forget to fill out the attendance check form or other engagement check opportunities.”

He said substitute teachers can also present a new challenge because they’re not always up to speed on the procedures used to take attendance.

Are the mistakes costing AISD money?

The principal told Sullivan the absences would not affect her son’s grades or ability to move onto the next grade level, according to Sullivan, but that it could impact how much state funding the school district receives.

Two weeks ago, the AISD superintendent encouraged families to send their children to school for the final weeks of classes so the district would meet on-campus attendance goals that are tied to millions of dollars in state funding.

The district said the last snapshot available from the week of April 22 puts the district in a safe spot of 42.5% participation for in-person learning. That’s nearly double what AISD needs to receive expected funding from the Texas Education Agency.

But even so, Dr. Stout said the attendance data on campuses needs to be accurate.

“We need to roll up our sleeves and we need to find ways to correct them,” said Stout. “We need to work with families, we need to work with students.”