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  • Writer's pictureKristin Guglietti

Schools deal with attendance drop

Kim Zuccarello, a middle school teacher, said having a routine is important. (Dan Russoman. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940)

HAMMONTON—According to Hammonton Superintendent of Schools Robin Chieco, students are opting out of virtual classrooms causing attendance rates to drop nationwide during a global pandemic. Board President Sam Mento III said attendance was down 50 percent at the Hammonton High School during the January 21 Board of Education meeting.

The reasons why high schoolers aren’t attending classes vary. For some, they work another job during school hours to help pay family bills, they take care of younger siblings or they could be struggling with mental health issues.

“The attendance issues we have right now, this is across the country. I mean every district is experiencing the same thing, so we’re not unique to that. We’re just trying to find unique ways to counteract it. We’ve found our most productive thing has been doing the home visits,” Chieco said.

Hammonton High School (HHS) guidance counselor and supervisor Michael Ryan, said the home visits have been positive. Family circumstances vary, so the counselors use different approaches to meet the needs of the students.

“In some cases we brought food. We brought hotspots for students who don’t have working Wi-Fi. We’ve delivered Chromebooks. We’ve set up outside counseling for them through perform care and other outside agencies to help meet their needs,” said Ryan.

Chieco doesn’t think it’s a tech issue, however, because the school provides Chromebooks.

“We have distributed a lot of hotspots, so if people don’t have internet connection, they can use a hotspot, and we pay for that monthly fee,” she said.

Mento said attendance rates at the Hammonton Early Childhood Education Center (ECEC), Warren E. Sooy Jr. Elementary School (WES) and middle school are decent. His main concern is with the high school students who are skipping classes, missing assignments and falling behind.

“Because the governor has said that you don’t have to go to school if you’re uncomfortable or afraid of the virus, it’s really led to what I think is an abuse of the system … where they know that we cannot fail them or hold them accountable for missing days, so they’re just not coming in,” Mento said.

Hammonton High School teachers like Stacy Gerst said it’s harder to connect with students virtually.

“The concern I think most people have is those that are absent chronically are really hard to connect with especially when we have not seen their face or gotten to talk to them in-person for some time,” Gerst said.

Gerst performs mid-point checks during the day to check with her students. Mid-way through a lesson, she will call the students’ names to make sure they’re present.

“We’re working hard to engage students, so during lessons I make sure I say all their names. Like, ‘I know you’re here! You’re not just a little box with a logo in your name on it. You’re a person and I acknowledge you, and I’m glad you’re here!’” Gerst said.

Gerst said it’s hard for some students to be in the right frame of mind during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she worries about their mental health.

“With teaching we try to stay attuned to that and touch base, and like I said, try to reach out and say, ‘hey we miss you! Where have you been? Is everything OK?’” she said.

During Gerst’s mid-point check on February 3, a student was absent but at the end of the period the student was there.

“I was like, ‘Hey, I was touching base.’ And she’s like ‘well I was helping my sibling today too.’ And I’m like, ‘I hear you because I’ve got my 8 year old on the side nagging me with questions,’” said Gerst. “I think people care if you notice if they’re missing,” she said.

Normally she is at the building while her husband works at home with the kids, but because of the snow the building was closed, which means she had to work from home.

Some students use office hours on Wednesdays for additional help. On February 3 three of Gerst’s students checked in during office hours.

“One just likes to check in because I think she’s a student who wants to be in-person, but for health and caution reasons she’s remote, so I think she likes the engagement with her instructors,” Gerst said.

Kim Zuccarello, a middle school teacher, said having a routine is also important.

“You have to have a routine, and I keep stressing that to my kids as far as attendance. Like any time they’re not home, they should still be getting up at the same time. They should still be going to their first class. They should be getting dressed,” Zuccarello said.

Zuccarello used to be a lunch duty teacher before COVID-19, but this school year, she’s a virtual check-in teacher. These teachers are assigned remote students to check-in with, and Zuccarello has more than 35 students on her list.

“We make contact with them on a weekly basis. If not, some of the students a daily basis or we’ll make a plan like, ‘OK it’s Monday. I’m going to check back with you on Friday.’ It’s almost like an extra person to help them,” she said.

The middle school has a virtual tutoring program. In the first week, Chieco said there were more than 30 kids participating in the tutoring program and she expects more to take advantage in the third marking period.

In many ways, virtual learning has changed the landscape of the classroom.

“I joke with the kids. This is my 20th year of teaching and I never thought I would be begging the kids to talk in class. It’s the funniest thing because usually we can’t get them to stop talking,” Zuccarello said.

With the introduction of livestreamed lessons, there is some hope students will be more engaged.

“We do see an increase in participation and there is some better attendance since that change,” Mento said.

Ryan agreed with Mento.

“The livestream is good because it keeps all the students whether they’re in school or at home all consistent in doing the same thing,” Ryan said.

Before livestreaming, students were using recorded lessons on days that weren’t in person.

With the livestream it’s structured so the first half of the period is instruction based and the second half is used for reinforcement. The livestreaming allows students to ask questions for clarification in the moment.

“Prior to this, when remote students were working from home that day, when they were not in person, there wasn’t that time to interact with them, so I’m excited that’s now an easier thing for us to do,” Gerst said.

Because of the current pandemic, there are also less extracurricular activities for students and most of them are held virtually.

“It broke my heart. We had one of the student leaders come to tears explaining about how school life has been this year, and it breaks my heart cause these are kids who would normally thrive in school and now they’re even contemplating not coming in and going virtual because it’s just not the same with everything that’s going on right now, and it breaks my heart,” Mento said while talking about a recent reopening committee meeting.

“They were saddened that the class size was small. There’s just no incentive to come to school when you can stay at home if you choose,” he said.

Chieco said the district continues to try to think of different solutions to help students succeed. She’s hopeful the school will be having in-person instruction at the end of the school year. In the meantime they’re working on different programs in the summer and different things they can place next fall to “help fill in some of the gaps.”

“The kids have been out of school for so long, it’s almost like we’re going to have to recondition them to come back to school and get used to being in school for six and a half hours a day, so it’s going to take time, but we’ll get them there,” Chieco said.

She said if parents need help they need to reach out to the teacher or building principal to ensure the school can help every student that’s in need.

Mento is optimistic that they’ll be able to bring the students back full-time for the last marking period if the number of COVID-19 cases decrease.

“I agree with what they’re [parents] saying. Believe me this board wants to go back full-time. These are state regulations and state guidelines that we have to follow,” Mento said.

“We’re all aware of the situation and that these kids are probably not where they should be, so next year at the beginning of the year, teachers are going to spend time to review and make sure we get everyone up to speed,” he said.

Editor’s Note: This story was produced thanks to a reporting grant facilitated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and funded by New Jersey Children’s Foundation.


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